Women. Veterans. History.

Amber Mathwig, Student Veterans Assistance Coordinator, UNC Chapel Hill

March 30, 2017

As Women's History month comes to a close, I find myself still struggling to find just one topic to focus on that is meaningful and relevant to the women student veteran population that universities seek to serve effectively and efficiently. Women veterans have a long, important, and always essential history of contributing to the efforts of the United States military. They have served in unofficial roles, official roles, and often in roles presumed to be contrary to their sex. Long before the All Volunteer Military, when men were compelled by law to serve, women were volunteering to provide everything from securing food and pay to providing life saving medical interventions.

We have served as women, sometimes disguised as men, or have even served somewhere in between that was presumptuous of not only our gender identity but also of our socially constructed capabilities to serve and succeed. These social constructs of ability, and therefore also of our equal receipt of due compensation and recognition, affected everything from the concrete needs of service members, such as pay and benefits, to the abstract, such as recognition of our service.

I want to tell you about the many great and wonderful accomplishments by amazing women who did not fear (or faced the fear of) breaking their socially constructed binds. I want to tell you about the many firsts, but I also want to tell you about the many that came before and after. I want to tell you about those yet to come. All of these women are our history - past, present, and future. These women are the ones who will continue to redefine words such as Marine, Sailor, Airman, Soldier, Coast Guardsman, service member, veteran, patriot, leader, and warrior.

Whether someone was the first woman to enlist, the first woman to be admitted to a school, or the first woman to be able to choose both a military career and parenting, all the women who came before and continue to come after are the ones who ensure we stay the course.  Before any “first”, were those who had to fight for the training, the recognition, and the time allotted to give them the opportunity to show their capability. After every first, are those who must prove one woman’s success was not an anomaly. From planning rooms to weapons ranges, to ships, to combat, women have continually proven their worth, their contribution, and their resilience. Thus creating a path for those who will continue to choose to serve. This is our history.  

Our history is etched into the creaks and cricks of our bones, often aged before their time from long treks and sleepless months and pushing our bodies to succeed when it would prefer that we stop. Our history flows with every hot tear that has and will run down our faces when the challenges had us at a breaking point and we still strode on despite them.

Our history did not ever really "begin" as if there was a time when we were not there. But our history continues each day as our sisters wake up and lace their boots, put on their stoic faces, and continue on in their mission to be part of something more than just one’s self.

There can only ever be one momentous "first" as recorded in the historical records, but there will never be enough known of the befores and afters. The befores and afters have created and will sustain the place of United States women veterans in this world. We have given more of ourselves to the mission than just the fun facts of history books, of which we barely glean a mention unless we write the stories ourselves. We have created and sustained legacies through our constant and consistent presence. We are not secondary, afterthoughts, also’s or too’s.

We are here. We are mighty. We are women. We are veterans. We are history.

The author is a 10-year Navy veteran, the Student Veterans Assistance Coordinator at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a current Master’s student in Women’s and Gender Studies at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The views and opinions expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of her institutions. 

*I want to thank my academic and writing women veteran friends, with whom and for whom I am constantly having these conversations. You are my history – past, present, and future – and I am grateful for you in my life.

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