Editorial: Recognizing women in the military

We should never refer to military service as an activity reserved for men

Five local women veterans and one military spouse share their stories Saturday during a recognition program at Philip Billard Post No. 1650 of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Topeka. From left to right are Tina Monasmith, Janet Dial, Rikki Blume, program emcee Angie Gray (at the back of the room), Sherry Sunderman (at the microphone), Sue Picard and Susan Brown. (Tim Hrenchir/The Capital-Journal)

On March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address to thousands of onlookers near the U.S. Capitol. It would be just over a month before Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War, and his speech focused on the arduous process of recovery after the most destructive conflict in American history: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”

 

The next 17 words would become the Department of Veterans Affairs motto almost a century later in 1959: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” As the VA explains, these words captured the agency’s mission by affirming “the government’s obligation to care for those injured during the war and to provide for the families of those who perished on the battlefield.” Lincoln’s words beautifully illustrated this obligation to our veterans, and they were all the more powerful coming two months before the end of the Civil War – a conflict that stole the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.

However, Lincoln delivered his address more than a century and a half ago. When we read the words “him who shall have borne the battle,” “his widow” and “his orphan,” it’s clear that Lincoln wasn’t anticipating a day when 15 percent of active-duty and enlisted military personnel – and 17 percent of active-duty officers – are women. If Lincoln delivered his speech today, he couldn’t refer to women as bystanders who only assume the burdens of war only insofar as their husbands are affected. Women are a critical component of our fighting force, and they’ve been permitted to serve in all combat roles since 2015.

Although the full range of combat roles finally opened up to both sexes two years ago, women have long served their country in uniform. Topekans were reminded of this fact at an event featuring female veterans at a local VFW on Saturday.

For example, Sue Picard is a retired Air Force master sergeant who says her service was the best time of her life – even though it was difficult to be away from her two children: “I know it was very hard on them at times.” Picard relished the opportunity the opportunity to contribute in ways that defied antiquated gender norms: “For once, we weren’t just cooking or being a nurse,” she said. Sherry Sunderman also served as a master sergeant in the Air Force who was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. She explains that the “three words ‘duty,’ ‘honor’ and ‘country’ have always meant everything to me, and they still do.”

The language in the VA’s male-centered motto simply doesn’t encompass women like these.

None of this is to diminish the sacrifices made by civilian men and women whose spouses serve in the military (one of whom, Tina Monasmith, was present at the event on Saturday). However, we should never refer to military service as an endeavor confined to a single gender. Doing so dishonors thousands of female veterans like Picard and Sunderman, as well as all of the women who continue to defend our country every day.

Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.

 

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