Women have stepped up, taken risks and died in war after war.
Eight U.S. military women were killed during the Vietnam war. By 2013, when then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced women would no longer be barred from direct ground combat roles, more than 150 American women had died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Toward the end of 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter made an announcement that was historic if long-expected given what Panetta had said two years earlier: The U.S. military would allow women to serve in all combat roles, even as Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers.
Army Sgt. Wakkuna A. Jackson, a 21-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida who was assigned to a support unit of Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division, was killed August 19, 2006 when an improvised explosive device detonated near the vehicle in which she was riding in a convoy vehicle in Kunar, Afghanistan. As the death of Jackson and others make clear, years before the way was cleared for women in combat, many had already been in harm’s way.
I learned about Jackson’s death from a World War II veteran in Montrose, Colorado who had lost his grandson in the same IED explosion. The elderly vet was moved by her sacrifice, and astounded that she had been alongside her son in danger.
I met a woman military pioneer as I interviewed people in Montrose for my book, “Home of the Brave.”
Merry Lee Kuboske, her brown eyes lively under a shock of graying hair, told me about learning to give to her community by watching nuns at the Catholic schools she attended. She once considered becoming a nun herself.
After high school, Kuboske worked for a time as an airline reservation clerk. At 19, determined to do more with her life, she spoke to an Army recruiter about joining up and going to language school -- she had enjoyed studying Latin in high school. Seeing the military as an opportunity to serve may have been a perspective she picked up from her father. He had always regretted being rejected by the Army because he had flat feet.
The Army recruiter apparently passed Kuboske’s name along to a Navy colleague. The Navy recruiter, intrigued by Kuboske’s airline experience, contacted her to say she might be a candidate for flight control school.
“I think they had anticipated I would not pass the test for the control tower and I would get a desk job,” she said.
She did pass. After boot camp in Maryland and more training in California she was stationed at Moffat Field near San Francisco.
Women were not allowed on ships at the time. Kuboske said she is occasionally asked whether she would have gone into battle if that had been an option when she was a teen.
“I’m sure I would have. I thought I could do anything.”
She was discharged in 1965 after completing a three-year stint and returned to Colorado. She used GI Bill benefits to go to college in Grand Junction for an accounting degree. She went on to work for her family’s liquor, car and tourist businesses in the Colorado mountains, for a CPA in Montrose and a lodge in Telluride.
Kuboske also was once president of the Ouray Chamber of Commerce, active in the Lady Elks and volunteered for a hospice. But she had never been involved with a veterans group until a neighbor told her about what was then known as Welcome Home Montrose, the grassroots project to support vets that is at the center of “Home of the Brave.”
Many women who served, particularly those of Kuboske’s generation (she was born in 1941) struggle to see themselves as on par with male veterans. They tend to stay away from traditional veterans organizations. Untraditional Welcome Home Montrose opened a door for Kuboske. She met male vets who “asked me to join all the ex-military organizations,” she said. And she accepted.
Kathryn Wirkus, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, told me that women “don’t hang out at the VFW. Historically, that’s where the guys go to decompress.”
But women veterans also need a place to relax, to find camaraderie and support, to network. In 2010 Wirkus helped form Women Veterans of Colorado to provide that.
Support in a safe place for women veterans is particularly crucial as the military grapples with a chronic sexual assault problem in which both attackers and victims are servicemembers. Men as well as women in the military have been victims, but women servicemembers are subjected to attacks and harassment at a higher rate. Many women suffer in silence, Wirkus said, for fear of jeopardizing their careers or being labeled a selfish whiner or disloyal in a culture that places a high premium on selflessness and teamwork.
“You’re depending on your buds to have your back,” Wirkus told me. “Then to be sexually assaulted by one of your own makes it all the worse.”
Wirkus served 27 years in the Air Force, helping develop training programs and taking part in humanitarian work. But when she retired in 2006, she told me, “I truly did not know I was a vet. I thought only men, and men who had served in combat, were vets.”
Terri Wilcox, another retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, told me she had little time for organizations like the VFW when she retired. She was busy contributing to her community as a civilian, running a transit authority in Montrose before becoming director of human resources for the city. In her transit position, she helped the local chapter of Disabled American Veterans arrange rides to the VA hospital in Grand Junction, an hour from Montrose.
Wilcox left the Air Force in 2008 after 25 and a half years. Unilke Wirkus, she felt like a vet. But something niggled.
“If there were anything, it would be that I would want to have been on the front line with my fellow servicemembers if I could have,” she said. “It’s the desire to want them to know that I am willing to sacrifice my life for our country just as any other servicemember would sacrifice for the betterment of our country.”