Jo Ann Murphy last weekend had a powerful perspective on the dramatically changing role of women in the U.S. military.
The Dukes County veterans agent was in Washington, D.C., for the 10th anniversary of Women in Military Service of America, joining 50 other women veterans from New England and several thousand more from the rest of the country.
“Women on active duty walked up to us, shook our hands and thanked us for our service,” she said. “One woman told me, ‘If it hadn’t been for your work, we wouldn’t be where we are today.’ That was good to hear.” Ms. Murphy is an Island native and a former Army Morse code interceptor.
Harm’s way is one place women in the military serve today as combat troops and pilots and as support troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harm’s way is also a place with which Ms. Murphy is familiar from her service in Thailand in 1975, when the capital city of Saigon in neighboring Viet Nam fell from South Vietnamese control into North Vietnamese and Viet Cong hands.
“I enlisted after high school in 1972 and trained in Alabama and Fort Devens, Mass., before going to Virginia and then to Ramasun, Thailand,” she said.
“There have been so many changes in women’s roles. For example, the planes in a fly-over at one of our events were piloted by women,” Ms. Murphy said.
While the Iraq War is the first time women have been officially assigned to combat roles, she said documented cases of women in combat go back at least to the Civil War. “Of course, they were dressed as men because women were not assigned combat roles,” she said.
The gathering of military women included veterans of World War Two, Korea, Vietnam and the Iraq War. Ms. Murphy’s role as a veterans advocate served her well.
“The role of Women in Military Service is to make sure these women get all the help they need, to reach out to them and to provide for them,” she said. “I saw a lot of these girls last weekend and some of them need help. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is by far the biggest issue, regardless of gender.”
The weekend was hosted by Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, USAF (Ret.) and included tours of war memorials, a Friday night celebration in the Washington D.C. armory and a Saturday ceremony at the women’s memorial near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery attended by defense secretary Robert Gates and by Gordon Mansfield, acting secretary of veterans affairs.
“We had a candlelight walk Saturday night from the Lincoln Memorial to the Women’s Memorial with woman veterans of all ages, walking and riding in carts. When we got there, 98 chairs were on the dais, each with the name of a military woman who had died in Iraq.
“When General Vaught rose to speak, she told us that another chair was needed. She had just been informed of the death of the ninety-ninth woman in Iraq. That was a sad, powerful moment,” Ms. Murphy said.
Women veterans were encouraged to schedule time to do an oral history interview of their service during the weekend and were provided with information packets on veterans services, programs and benefits.
Ms. Murphy was ebullient on Tuesday, back on the Vineyard in her role as veterans agent, preparing to meet the 4:30 p.m. ferry carrying Army Spc. Chris Brown home after a tour in the Mideast. Marine Lieut. James Hegarty is also en route to the Island.
At one point, 12 Islanders were in Iraq, Ms. Murphy said. Four servicemen are there now, including Marine Corp. Chris Clark, Army Sgt. Daniel Dunlap, Staff Sgt. Richard Monaco and U.S. naval officer Ron McLaren.
She said Army Staff Sgt. Michael Blake leaves in December for his third tour of duty in the Mideast. Sergeant Blake has reported that his brother, Spc. Daniel Blake, is doing well, receiving rehabilitation as an outpatient while recovering from shrapnel wounds inflicted by a rocket-propelled grenade during a recent attack on his unit in Afghanistan.
Ms. Murphy of course does not use Morse code to communicate her mission today. “We are here to help veterans,” she said.