‘There is an old adage that says a man has to prove he’s not great and a woman has to prove she will not be a failure.’—Capt. Doris Vail, U.S. Navy, ret.
In spite of many stories to the contrary, women have been a part of every war with American involvement. From the Revolutionary War to the War in Afghanistan, women served their country proudly. Most of the historic wars have evidence of women serving as men so they could fight alongside their husbands, brothers, and fathers to keep democracy safe.
Recent statistics from the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs indicate there are 166,222 female veterans in the state, and 35,586 of them are 65 or older.
Many don’t feel they get the recognition they deserve. Lt. Cmdr. Kathryn Wilgus, U.S. Navy, retired, and a registered nurse, worked in an operating room in Kandahar, Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom. She served in Afghanistan and her significant other served in Iraq and both proudly wear the familiar hats. However, Kathryn is frustrated because people thank her husband for his service and ignore her, even though her hat is like his except it says, “Afghanistan War Woman Veteran.”
“I’ve been pushed aside, and he’s the only one recognized,” Kathryn says. “And a lot of times, they’ll say, ‘Is that your hat? Did you serve?’ while men are immediately thanked for their service.”
Another unfortunate aspect for female veterans is many don’t know they’re eligible for the full range of federal and state benefits, and there are times women must go before a panel to prove their injuries are related to military services.
Capt. Doris Vail, U.S. Navy, retired, says companies like Walgreens and Lowe’s give veterans a discount. “I’ve given them my card and had them say, ‘Did your husband serve in the Navy?’ I tell them to look closer at the name on the card,” Doris says.
Neither soldier nor veteran is indicative of gender. In fact, Florida has the third-largest number of female veterans in the United States, and they are one of the fastest-growing segments of veterans.
Senior Airman, honorably discharged, U.S. Air Force
The reigning Mrs. America, Angela Chambliss served in the U.S. Air Force from 1990-1994, ending her career as a senior airman. She was a meteorologist charged with getting weather news to pilots to ensure safe flights to and from their base of operations.
“When I came in, the rating for error-free forecasts was about 80 percent for female meteorologists,” Angela says. “I was the first to keep my people error-free. We were 99 to 100 percent error-free, and I also was the first woman to work directly with pilots.”
She continued her education at Florida State University and earned a degree in atmospheric science, but was unable to find a civilian job to fit her qualifications. She eventually moved into makeup and hair styling and began working steadily behind the scenes of scholarship pageants. That led to her eventually becoming a contestant herself, winning Mrs. Florida and then Mrs. America at the Pure International Elegant Pageant.
As Mrs. America, Angela recently spent a week in Washington, D.C., working to get more done for veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS).
“This is my platform as Mrs. America,” Angela says. “I spoke to a congressional panel on suicides because alternative therapies are not covered under VA benefits. My hope is that will change.”
She says Alabama has the highest rate of suicides among veterans, yet the government continues to want to use medication and label veterans’ problems as “mental illness.”
As Mrs. America in the Pure International Elegant Pageant, Angela will compete for the international title in June in Orlando. “Even if I don’t succeed at the next level, I will continue to work locally for this cause,” she says.
Angela also is a leader in her church, Frontier Church in Leesburg, where she was ordained as a minister in December 2015. As expected, her biggest supporters are her husband David, and her children, Briton Bond, 26, and Bethany Chambliss, 23.
Lt. Col. Marianne Estes
Retired, U.S. Air Force
Finding work after getting her undergraduate degree was tough for Marianne Estes, but within two weeks of submitting her paperwork to the USAF, she was called to go to Officers Training School in San Antonio. Her brother was attending the Air Force Academy, so she had no trouble selecting the branch where she would serve.
After joining the Air Force in 1979, Marianne spent 10 years on active duty. She began her work in administration, but decided she wanted more of a challenge. Her next assignment was with the Air Force in a maintenance squadron, but after a year of that, she became section commander in a civil engineering squadron.
“That gave me the prefix showing I had command time, and after that, I went to work for the base commander as his executive officer at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California,” she says.
Working with contractors was the next assignment. “They have a special program called Education with an Industry, and there are only a couple of people that get pulled for this, but I did,” Marianne says.
Once she finished the course work, she went to work as a USAF representative at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California. As a liaison for the Air Force, she was given deluxe training in what Lockheed did with every contract it received from the USAF.
The next move was to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, to the Aeronautical Systems Division to oversee the modification of the B-52 and the B-1B. She was one of the first to use a simulator that was set up for more than one aircraft.
“I was pregnant, but I didn’t have that discrimination,” The Villages resident says. “When I told my commander, there were no congratulations, just frustration that they were going to have to replace somebody for a while.”
Following the birth of her second son, she moved to naval reserves and served there for 10 years.
While in the reserves, one of her most exciting adventures involved traveling to several bases in Germany in a government-issued car that couldn’t go over 65 mph. It became quite an adventure because she had to learn the location of the next base as she was leaving a base. With her government car, driving on the famous German Autobahn highway was not the adventure it could have been. The recommended speed is 80 mph, but there are areas where there is no speed limit.
The Air Force is a family affair for Marianne. Her brother, Dean, commissioned her, and she commissioned her son, Nathan. “My son has done better than any of us. He turned a pilot opportunity down and is a combat-ready officer, working behind the scenes,” she says.
In addition, her niece is a pilot with the Pentagon and her nephew also is a pilot.
Though her retirement officially began in 2013, the Air Force always will be a part of Marianne’s life.
Cmdr. Linda Dunn
Retired, U.S. Navy
Though she had intended to have a career teaching special education, Linda Dunn lost her job with the local school system and couldn’t find another one. She decided to join the U.S. Navy in 1981. She did well on the test, but was told there were no openings for women as an electronic technician for three years. Her response, “I want to take the officer’s test.”
The recruiter tried to discourage her, reminding her it was a very difficult test and usually meant failure, but she insisted and took the test.
“About three weeks later, I got a call from a very disappointed recruiter who said, ‘Not only did you pass, but you got the third-highest score we’ve ever had in the valley,’” Linda says with a laugh. “The thing is, tests to me weren’t hard. I loved to take tests. I aced the physics test even though I’d never had physics.”
However, she couldn’t get into Officer Candidate School for a year, so she enlisted and went in as an E-3 due to her test score.
“They sent me to New London, Connecticut, where I was on the pier for the submarine tender,” and she adds, “I joined the Navy to see the world, and what I actually saw was the entire East Coast, but I enjoyed it.”
Linda’s career involved a lot of paperwork as a legal officer, school director for the boiler-water, feed-water guys—the personnel in the bottom of the ship that keep it running—public affairs, and personnel support detachment.
“The last thing I did was foreign liaison officer for CENTCOM in Tampa in charge of the South Pacific. Each of the countries would send over officers, and they were all higher-ranking officers, and we would work with them to help their countries send soldiers to fight in Iraqi Freedom and in Afghanistan, so it was a coalition, not an individual effort,” Linda says.
With the reserves, she picked Naples, Italy, for her two weeks of active duty, and a chance meeting with someone she’d been stationed with in Atlanta led to 90 days of active duty in Naples. She was scheduled to return the Friday after 9/11 but that was canceled, and she was unable to go back.
Now living in Tavares, she does Overseas Adventure Tours, works with Lake Cares, Friends of the Tavares Library, and the Purple Heart Cruise Foundation with veterans.
Lt. Col. Jody Nelson
Retired, U.S. Army
As owner of the Spice & Tea Exchange of Brownwood, Jody Nelson spends her days selecting spices and teas and teaching her customers how to enhance their cooking with these flavorful offerings. Prior to doing this, she was Lt. Col. Jody Nelson of the U.S. Army and a commander of a combat team.
Apparently, she likes things spicy in every area of her life as she chose to work with nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare.
“I did the job that nobody else wanted to do, and I asked for it,” Jody says. “It’s one of the smallest branches of the U.S. Army. I worried about nuclear war, so I wanted to know how you protect yourself.”
The chemical part of the job involved protecting against it. She briefed those headed into areas where suspected chemical weapons might be used. “The more I knew, the more I could talk to troops more knowledgeably,” she says.
Her 28 years in the Army included serving in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and other significant assignments.
“My aim was more toward crisis management, damage management, and I briefed all the commanders on what to expect in the areas where they were going,” Jody says.
Jody was the first female combat commander in Afghanistan. She was with the 4th Infantry Division, 4th Combat Brigade and had 1,000 troops serving under her.
“What I did always affected the troops, and I enjoyed my soldiers. A commander is only as good as her forces,” Jody says.
Besides working with the Spice & Tea, Jody lives in The Villages and fosters service dogs, training them for Guardian Angels. The dogs stay with her for eight weeks to learn how to acclimate to public gatherings, and then they’re given to those who need them.
“This is how I give back,” Jody says.
Capt. Doris Vail
Retired, U.S. Navy
“When I entered the Navy, 2 percent were enlisted women. It was so restricted,” says Doris Vail, of The Villages. “There were no female captains, and we referred to our commander as the ‘head skirt.’ When I retired in 1984 as a Navy captain, there were only 10 captains on active duty.”
Doris saw a lot of changes for women during her 26 years in the Navy. She also saw many things that remained the same. She served in administration, communications, and as a personnel officer. She was the only female officer in command at the Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego.
When she served in Rota, Spain, in the communication station, she was the only woman there. There were no restrooms for women so she had to use the commanding officer’s private toilet. “As the only woman, it was an interesting integration for the entire command,” Doris says.
Throughout her time in the navy, Doris was fortunate to continue her schooling, eventually getting her doctorate. She spent many years in Washington, D.C. While teaching at the National Defense University, she taught many of the newly released prisoners of war from Vietnam to help them integrate back into the workforce.
“It was a marvelous experience,” she says. “Most of them had a great sense of humor, and I felt honored to be a part of their group and socialize with them and their wives.”
During her naval career, Doris worked steadily to increase the involvement of women in the Navy. She helped get the first woman enrolled in the Naval Academy and saw many restrictions end when more women were promoted to captain and admiral.
“I worked 12- and 14-hour days to be the best so my boss knew I could do what I was hired to do,” she says.
Lt. Cmdr. Kathryn Wilgus
Retired, U.S. Navy
“I joined because in my high school I would have been voted ‘most likely not to succeed,’” Kathryn Wilgus says. “When I decided to go back to school so I could join the Army, I thought at least this way, they would say she tried.”
While a man can join the Army with a GED, women are required to have a high school diploma, so Kathryn went back to school that summer and got hers.
She began her service in 1987 in the U.S. Army Reserve Delayed Entry Program. She was an operating room technician, rising to the rank of sergeant before leaving the reserves to pursue a nursing degree due to the encouragement of her fellow reservists.
She was direct-commissioned as a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy Nurse Corps reserves in 2004, assigned to Operational Hospital Support Unit in Jacksonville. Her deployment to Landstuhl, Germany, was in 2009 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom with rotations on the USS Continuing Promise Mission in Antigua, Colombia, and Panama.
“My first active duty in Afghanistan was being on the Medical Embedded Training Team,” Kathryn say.
She was a mentor for Afghan National Army nurses and surgeons and volunteered for the Female Engagement Team, leaving the compound to interact and train Afghan policewomen.
“They were being raped, and I tried to help them,” Kathryn says. “I always called myself a ‘MacGyver’ nurse. You have to make it happen no matter what.”
One of the physical problems Kathryn deals with is back pain. The chronic pain is the result of wearing a combat vest made for a man. Not having the proper fit puts pressure on the spine and hips.
Kathryn went from Afghanistan to fill a critical need billet in Kandahar for Operation Enduring Freedom. As an operating room nurse, she was charged with maintaining operational readiness in a combat zone and as a training officer. It was here she faced her greatest challenges. Treating battlefield injuries is often fast, grueling work with few rewards.
“You never know how your patient does after leaving your operating room,” Kathryn says. “We just got them ready to be able to fly to Germany for more care.”
However, when one patient received a Purple Heart, Kathryn remained in the room to watch. Each soldier is given a book and those attending can sign it, which Kathryn did. This man was her second patient and was severely injured. Later, he contacted everyone who signed his book to thank them for the care he received. With a smile, Kathryn says, “I finally got to see somebody I helped.”
During a retirement ceremony, there is a flag demonstation called “Olde Glory Presentation.” Representatives from each branch and rank she had served attended Kathryn’s ceremony. They passed the flag from one white-gloved soldier to the next with tributes to Old Glory and its beauty as the American flag. It was this man, Kathryn’s second patient, who had lost a hand, who passed the flag to her to end her ceremony.
It is Kathryn’s wish that those in the highest ranks of the military will realize that what happens to their medical teams in battle is a different kind of battlefield trauma. She still suffers PTSS and hopes to eventually see support groups for medical personnel and women to create a unique kind of bond for participants.
Female veterans of all branches of the military service serve with pride and reverence for their country and their flag.
“I am a woman. I served in the military. I am a veteran.”—Anonymous