Throughout history, there have been several significant milestones accomplished by women, especially in the military. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight some of the most important women figures in U.S. military history.
Sfc. Leigh Ann Hester (1982)
Army Sergeant First Class Leigh Ann Hester is the first woman since World War II to earn the Silver Star Medal and the first to ever earn it for combat valor. She was a sergeant with the National Guard’s Kentucky-based 617th Military Police Company when she was deployed to Iraq.
In 2005, while scanning and clearing a route for a supply convoy near Baghdad her squad was ambushed by enemy fire. She directed her team away from the enemy’s fire and into a flanking position that exposed multiple irrigation ditches and an orchard that the enemies were using to stage the attack. In doing so, she managed to get every member of her team out alive.
For a period of time, Leigh Ann left the military and served her community as a police officer. However, she reenlisted in 2014 and spent 18 months in Afghanistan where she was named Sergeant First Class.
Command Sgt. Maj. Mildred C. Kelly (1928-2003)
Mildred C. Kelly joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1950 and would have a successful military career that spanned 26 years. She spent a great deal of her career in the military pushing to create opportunities for women’s service to be honored and memorialized. In 1972, Kelly made history by becoming the first Black woman Sergeant Major in the Army. Two years later, she was promoted to Command Sergeant Major making her the first woman to hold the highest enlisted position at a major Installation with a majority male population.
She retired in 1976, but her dedication to veterans never ceased. She served on the Maryland Veterans Advisory Board, Veterans Advisory Board, WAC Veterans Association and the National Association of Black Military Women.
Command Sgt. Maj. Mildred C. Kelly died in 2003 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 67.
Tech4 Carmen Contreras-Bozak (1919-2017)
In 1942, six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Carmen Contreras-Bozak became the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps. At the time, the armed forces were in need of bilingual people. Contreras-Bozak’s Puerto Rican heritage and multi-linguistic background gave her the experience she needed to serve as an interpreter. She spoke five languages in total – Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian.
Carmen was awarded the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, two Battle Stars, a World War II Victory Medal, an American Campaign Medal, a WAAC Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. After the war, she continued to serve the military. She volunteered for the VA in Oakland Park for decades.
In 1989, she started a chapter of WAC Veterans in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and served as the first president. She also founded a chapter of the Society of Military Widows in 1998.
Lt. Susan Ahn Cuddy (1915-2015)
Despite the initial denial of her first application to enlist citing her race, Navy Lt. Susan Ahn Cuddy began her trailblazing military career as the Navy’s first Asian American woman officer and first woman gunnery officer after reapplying in 1940. She was named Woman of the Year in 2003 by California State Assembly District 28 and in 2006 received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, DC. Cuddy died in 2015 at the age of 100 years old.
Cathay Williams (1844-1893)
Born near Independence, Missouri, Cathay was born to an enslaved mother and a formerly enslaved father. She was the first African American female soldier to enlist with the Army and the only documented African American woman to serve in the Army in the 19th Century.
Like many women of the time, Cathay disguised herself as a man in order to enlist in the Army in 1866, taking on the name William Cathay. Only two people she was close to knew her true identity. She would be discharged two years later when a surgeon found out that she was a woman after she experienced health issues that caused her to be hospitalized multiple times.
Despite being discharged from the Army, Cathay continued to use the identity of William Cathay to enlist with the 38th U.S. Infantry, making her the first and only woman Buffalo Soldier.
Clara Barton (1821-1912)
Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton began her early career as a teacher. She established the first free school in Bordentown, NJ in 1852. In 1861, she quit her job to take on the duty of providing supplies to Union men of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry fighting the Civil War. This was the beginning of her lifelong mission of coming to the aid of people experiencing disaster.
Clara eventually became known as the “angel of the battlefield” when she gained approval to distribute supplies on battlefields in Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina. Despite not having any formal medical training, she was named head nurse of one of General Benjamin Butler’s units. In 1881, Barton was named president of the American Association of the Red Cross.
In 1882, the U.S. joined the International Red Cross and Clara remained with the organization through 1904.
Margaret Corbin (1751-1800)
During the Revolutionary War, many women followed their husbands who had enlisted in the military to war. She, like many other women, cooked, did laundry and took care of sick and wounded soldiers. On November 16, 1776, she dressed as a man and joined her husband in the Battle of Fort Washington in Manhattan Island.
Margaret fought alongside her husband on the battlefield and when he was killed, she continued fighting despite having been shot three times injuring her breast, her jaw, and nearly severing her left arm. Margaret lived, but she was taken as a prisoner of war. Eventually she was released by the British, but she never regained use of her arm. She died after her 50th birthday.
In 1926, her remains were exhumed and moved to West Point where she was buried with full military honors.
For more than 200 years, women have been serving in the military in some capacity. As in every part of society, women have had to overcome many obstacles to achieve the ability to do things like serve in combat and obtain leadership roles. We are grateful to the many women who are part of Heroes On the Water and we celebrate all women around the globe, past and present, who continue to build and support our world.
Heroes on the Water is a 501(c)3 charity organization that introduces veterans, first responders and their families to a recreation that is therapeutic while providing a relaxing, fun experience. We introduce participants to the calming effects of being out on the water and provide tools through teaching that can be used to help cope with trauma, stress and other injuries. Click here to donate.