Across the armed services, women made up 16 percent of the active-duty military as of 2017 — by branch, that number ranged from 8.4 percent within the Marine Corps to nearly 20 percent within the Air Force. Their representation is small and growing only marginally — in 2007, women in uniform made up 14.4 percent of the force — and their stories tend to be ignored in favor of legacies left by men who have shaped the narrative of service to country. Despite being overlooked, servicewomen are forging new career paths for themselves and the next generation as they enter jobs that were once closed to them. Consider pioneers like Capt. Rosemary Mariner, who was one of the first female Navy pilots in the 1970s and the first woman to lead a naval aviation squadron. She died in January from ovarian cancer, and her memory was honored last month with a flyover using all-female pilots. Or First Lt. Marina A. Hierl, who in 2018 became the first woman in the Marine Corps to command an infantry platoon.
For International Women’s Day, The Times asked servicewomen and veterans to send us the stories that defined their experiences in the military. We left it to them whether to share their accomplishments, the challenges they faced or something unforgettable from their time in the military. Below is a selection of the more than 650 submissions we received.
My Drill Sergeant Looked Out for Me
Sgt. Joelene Schwebke, Army, 2012-Present
After graduating from college in 2008, I really wanted to serve in the military. Unfortunately, this meant I would have to hide that I am a lesbian. At the time, being openly gay in the service was forbidden. In 2011, my recruiter called me back and told me that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had been repealed. I joined the Army in late 2011, and I was fortunate to have a wonderful drill sergeant, who made me feel comfortable during basic training and didn’t treat me differently. He made a point to let me know he wouldn’t tolerate any discrimination toward me.
Two Years Ago, I Finally Started Serving as My True Self
Staff Sgt. Kate Cole, Army, 2008-Present
I served in the Army for nine years as someone else. About two years ago, I was able to start serving openly as a transgender woman. I’ve faced discrimination since I’ve come out and lost some friends, but it has been worth it. I’ve gained a lot personally and professionally and have become part of a community that is open and willing to embrace change. I’ve had several soldiers tell me I’ve changed their views on not only transgender service members but also female service members being in combat arms.