Friday, March 20, 2009

Celebrating and Serving the Women of the U.S. Military, Past and Present

By U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Across the United States, there is a special sisterhood of women – most of them in their 80s – who share a unique piece of American history. These women have been mothers and grandmothers, teachers, office workers, nurses, photographers, business women, and dancers, and one was even a nun. But before that, they were pilots, flying every kind of aircraft in the U.S. Army Airforce during World War II. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) postponed career aspirations and family plans in order to actively participate in one of the most consequential moments in the history of our nation. Their service was intrepid, unprecedented, and, for many years, largely unnoticed.

In 1941, as the conflict intensified on fronts around the world, women were at last permitted to join the war effort as pilots by flying necessary ferrying operations, freeing all male pilots for combat deployment. Women pilots from across the country paid their own way to Texas, where they were trained at Houston Municipal Airport and Avenger Field in Sweetwater. Altogether, 1,102 women earned their wings and went on to fly over 60 million miles in non-combat military missions.

In 1943, male pilots refused to fly the B-26 Marauder because they feared it was unsafe. General Hap Arnold called on 25 WASP to be trained to fly the aircraft so their male counterparts would see the B-26 was safe. Despite their tireless service, and the fact that the WASP received training identical to male pilots flying combat missions in European, Asian, and North African theaters, the female pilots were denied full military status. Their service records were sealed and classified. And when the war ended, they paid their own way home, returning to civilian life with little acknowledgement and no official record of their unique contribution to America’s triumph in WWII.

With or without formal recognition, this spirited band of sisters forged their own legacy. Today, nearly 300 are still living, including over 30 in Texas. Deanie Bishop Parrish of Waco recently said, “I think it's important for young people today to realize that WASP flew missions that were dangerous, but in order for our country to be free, that's what it took, and we did it without any thought of recognition or glory.” In recent years, historians have been working to preserve Mrs. Parrish’s story, and others like hers, and rightfully cast these accounts into the rich history of World War II. To that end, I am leading a bipartisan effort of all 17 women in the U.S. Senate to finally bestow the honor that these pilots earned more than 50 years ago. We have introduced a bill to award the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian award.

The valor and service of the WASP is only one part of their legacy. Their success in the line of duty paved the way for armed forces to lift the ban on women attending military flight training in the 1970s, and their efforts eventually led to women being full integrated as military pilots. Now, women fly every type of aircraft and mission, from fighter jets in combat to the shuttle in space flight. The WASP legacy certainly helped open the doors to women in the U.S. military, allowing them to serve in nearly every capacity.

Today, our military is welcoming an unprecedented influx of women who are volunteering to serve our country through Active, Reserve, and National Guard duty. Servicewomen are playing critical roles in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2008, another important milestone was achieved when the first woman, General Ann E. Dunwoody, reached the rank of four-star general. The same year, Texan Monica Brown became the second woman since WWII to receive the Silver Star for valor.

This progress must also be evident in how we care for women veterans. After the WASP left service in the 1940s, the women pilots were denied all veterans’ benefits until 1977. Though we’ve come a long way since then, I am working to make sure that women’s service is met with equal gratitude and equal access to the best health care that the VA can offer. In March, I joined Sen. Patty Murray to lead legislative efforts to improve the VA’s ability to meet the needs of women, who comprise the fastest growing segment of veterans in the VA system. The legislation will encourage the VA to expand treatment programs and broaden research to address the unique health needs of female veterans.

This March, as we observe Women’s History Month, it is critical that we remember and celebrate the achievements of American women, such as the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Their brave service has helped make our military the greatest in the world, and their stories represent the rich legacies that have been woven into U.S. history by American heroines.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas.

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