Army Female Trailblazers Applaud Expanding Role of Women

Lt. Gen. Karen Dyson, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army (financial management and comptroller), delivers the keynote address during a U.S. Army Women's Foundation event on Capitol Hill, March 17, 2015.U.S. Army photo: Lisa Ferdinando
Lt. Gen. Karen Dyson, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army (financial management and comptroller), delivers the keynote address during a U.S. Army Women's Foundation event on Capitol Hill, March 17, 2015.U.S. Army photo: Lisa Ferdinando

WASHINGTON -- Women today are taking on increased roles in complex and changing battle environments, said senior Army budget officer Lt. Gen. Karen Dyson.

The role of women in Operation Iraqi Freedom, or OIF, and Operation Enduring Freedom, or OEF, demonstrate the shift, said Dyson, the military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army (financial management and comptroller).

Dyson delivered the keynote speech, March 17, during a U.S. Army Women's Foundation event on Capitol Hill that honored the accomplishments, service and sacrifice of Army women.

"After OIF and OEF, we are learning now about the complexities of the battlespace that demands new roles for women that have emerged or gained prominence over the last 13-plus years of war," Dyson said.

As part of the directive to open combat jobs to women in the military, the Army is opening to female Soldiers some 33,000 jobs that were previously closed to them, she said. 

"This is opening a whole new horizon where we are seeing women step up to test their mettle in very difficult endeavors," she said, noting six women have passed the Ranger Training Assessment Course and are eligible to attend elite Army Ranger School in April.

"Military service continues to open opportunities, and for women who are prepared and determined and are willing to work hard, there will continue to be examples of firsts," she said.


At the event, the non-profit foundation inducted into its Hall of Fame retired Command Sgt. Maj. Mary Sutherland, who entered the Women's Army Corps, also known as WAC, in 1969 and was the first woman in the Army to serve 35 years on active duty; retired Col. Sally Murphy, the Army's first female helicopter pilot; and retired Col. Jill Chambers, the founder of This Able Vet, a veterans empowerment group to help those with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

All Army women, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross, were also made honorary members of the Hall of Fame. Staff Sgt. Julia Stalker, a combat medic on Fort Rucker, Alabama, who is a Distinguished Flying Cross recipient, accepted the honor on behalf of all recipients. 

"When I joined the Army, only seven short years ago, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be standing here today representing some of the most extraordinary women of our nation's history," Stalker said. 

"It is with great pride that I humbly represent these courageous and certainly tenacious women," said Stalker, who paid homage to female military aviators and her personal hero civilian Amelia Earhart, who received a Distinguished Flying Cross.


Retired Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams recalled how as a one-star, she was director of enlisted personnel and tasked with reviewing Sutherland's request to extend her time past 30 years. 

"The answer was no, no, no, no, no, no down the line," McWilliams said.

"I took my little self to visit the sergeant major of the Army and said 'sergeant major, it's time for a woman to be in the 35-year program,'" she said. "And he said 'yea, you're right.'"

McWilliams said she was honored to be a part of that for Sutherland, noting she was a terrific person. Sutherland died in 2005. "We miss her," McWilliams said.


Murphy, who served almost 27 years in the Army, said she wanted to recognize all the women of the WAC expansion that she was a part of in the early 1970s. 

"It is an honor not only to be recognized by this wonderful group, but also to stand as a symbol of all of the women who were right there with me, shoulder to shoulder," Murphy said.

Murphy said she felt like a "fraud," because "there was nothing I did to deserve this honor other than be 'Army Strong.'

"I didn't know how to fly when they selected me for flight school. I didn't really have a particularly great aptitude as many of my warrant officer flight instructors would probably tell you if they were here today," she said.

"But what I did have was tenacity," she said.

Chambers, who retired after 28 years in the military, said it was the great relationships with her battle buddies in the Army that gave her support. In her post-Army career, she works "hands on" to help veterans.

"I'm actually the boots on the ground that are putting things in people's hands to actually empower them to a healthier life," said Chambers, who was selected in 2007 to serve as a special assistant to the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct a focused study on PTSD. 


The Army Women's Foundation held a panel discussion at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, March 18.

Featured speakers included retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, and Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer 5 Phyllis Wilson.

While the Army will be celebrating its 240th birthday this year, it is also a time to celebrate 240 years of women's contributions to the freedoms enjoyed today, Preston said.

"Women have served our country with valor from the battlefields of the Revolutionary War to the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan," he said. "Today women in our nation's military serve in more than 80 countries around the world in a wide variety of occupations and roles."

As today's pioneering women open doors that were previously closed and raise the bar even higher, they can "reflect and model themselves after those pioneers before them who pierced the glass ceilings of their time."

Wilson said times have certainly changed since the 1980s, explaining how she was a young warrant officer on jump status on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and some young enlisted Soldiers refused to salute her.

When she counseled them, the men said they knew she was a warrant officer, but refused to salute because their first sergeant had told them that women will never jump into combat and female Soldiers are taking up a spot that a man should have. 

"In 1991/1992, there was validity in that, but not enough to let him off the hook. Knowing a first sergeant had shared that information with them, it's like passing down any biases from one generation to the next," she said.

The Soldiers took her to the first sergeant and she also spoke to the company commander.

Back then, women would not have been allowed into combat, but "look where we are now," she said. "What that first sergeant had grown up believing and knowing were true within his mindset, but to pass it to the next generation, really doesn't serve us well."

Women have made remarkable strides and will continue to do so in the military, Wilson said, noting she is excited for what the next 15, 20, 30 years holds for women. 

During a luncheon after the panel, the U.S. Army Women's Foundation and its partners awarded scholarships totaling $75,000 to Army women, and children of Army women.

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