Women Who Joined the Parade

Veterans Day Parade

This week we celebrated Veterans Day in the United States. The date, November 11, commemorates the signing of the armistice ending World War 1 on November 11, 1919.   It was during the 1920s that Veterans Day parades became common throughout the United States. 

At first the veterans were almost always men. But now, according to the Veterans Administration, about one in ten veterans are women. And women veterans are very visible n public life. Several women veterans  serve in Congress and even more have entered politics at the local and state level. But like so many other gains made by women, it was not easy for the first female veterans to be given recognition.

The first large group of veterans who joined together to help one another were the veterans of the Civil War. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded to help Union soldiers readjust to civilian life and to support voting rights for the African American men who served with them. For fifty years or more it was an important political force, and it was also the first Veterans association to have female members—although very few of them.

The first woman admitted to the GAR was Kady Brownell of Rhode Island. Born in 1842 to a British soldier serving in South Africa, she moved as a child to the United States. When the Civil War started and her husband joined the Rhode Island regiment, Kady went with him. She served mainly as a nurse and flag bearer at several battles, including Bull Run. When her husband was severely wounded and had to leave the service, she left with him. Both she and her husband received honorable discharges.

Kady Brownell

Both the Brownells were interested in the rights of veterans and supported the GAR. In 1870, Kady Brownell became an official member of the association and eventually both she and her husband were granted Veterans’ pension. She was given $8 a month, while her husband received $24. That doesn’t seem quite fair, but it was better than nothing.

Sarah Emma Edmonds took a different path to becoming a veteran. She was born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada near the Maine border. When she was 15, she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and an abusive father. Traveling and getting a job as a woman was difficult, so Edmonds disguised herself as a man and adopted the name of Franklin Thompson.  As a man she was able to get a job and support herself by selling Bibles, but when the Civil War broke out, she decided she wanted to serve the Union.

Edmonds enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on May 25, 1861, also known as the Flint Union Greys. At first, she worked as a nurse and also carried messages. She also claimed to have served as a spy, although her career is difficult to document. She wrote a best-selling memoir about her life as a spy describing her many disguises and adventures, but a few historians have questioned some of her facts. Being a spy means having to keep secrets, so perhaps we will never know all the details of her work.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

In later life Edmonds married Linus. H. Seelye and raised two children. She also became a lecturer and an activist for Veterans’ rights. She was awarded a government pension of twelve dollars a month. In 1897, she was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, but her membership was short because she died in 1898.

This week as we thank all veterans for their service, is a good time to pay tribute to these pioneers who made the acceptance of women into the United States Armed Services possible.

“Scars upon my heart” Women and War

Poppies at War MemorialIt seems that America will celebrate Veteran’s Day this year by sending more troops to Iraq, thus continuing the endless cycle of war and regret. Every year we celebrate the service given by our veterans but we have never reached the point where we stop creating veterans who have to serve yet again.  Back in the long-ago twentieth century, it seemed that every man was a veteran—fathers, uncles, cousins—there was a brotherhood of veterans (some women too, but very few in those faraway days). Each of them celebrated their own war, which at last was going to end all wars. But they never did.

Now there is a small band of men and women who are sent back again and again to fight the same war—two, three or even more tours of service on the bleak sands of Iraq. Only a small percentage of the population suffer the losses of war; only a few families welcome back veterans who are suffering in body and mind. Have we forgotten how terrible it is to live with the scars of war for years and decades?

The quotation “Scars on my heart” is from a poem written by Vera Brittain for her brother in 1916. Ironically the poem was written four days before her brother was killed in action on June 15, 1918, almost a century ago

Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,

Received when in that grand and tragic ‘show’

You played your part

Two years ago.

Widows of the Civil War
Widows of the Civil War

Women’s role in wars has often been to suffer as war widows or bereaved mothers. After the American Civil War, women lined up to receive the pensions their husbands had won for them by being killed in battle. After every war the scars are left not only on the bodies of the men who fought, but on the minds and hearts of the women who live with their suffering or with their deaths. And yet it seems we cannot stop.

Every year we create more veterans, not only Americans, but the people around the world who fight against us. Thousands of women in Iraq and Afghanistan have been widowed and bereaved by the loss of sons and brothers. Their scars will never heal.

Afghan war widow
Afghan war widow

War solves nothing, as Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote. And yet on Election Day we heedlessly vote for people who have told us they want to send more troops overseas. They want America to be strong, which often means being ready to fight at any time. Creating more veterans, more hatred, and more suffering will never build a better world. It’s about time we demanded that our leaders think more and fight less. They can make peace work if they stop listening to bullies and start paying attention to what most Americans really want for themselves and their families.

We Have Enough Veterans

Last night on the TV news, the signoff story was about Veterans Day. “Tell us about how a veteran affected your life” said the anchor. How to begin? When I was growing up, all the men I knew were veterans. On long Thanksgiving afternoons my father and uncles would sit in the living room smoking cigars and telling stories of their army days. My brother was allowed to sit and listen to them while my sister and cousins and I helped our mothers and aunts in the kitchen. War was a closed male circle that we knew little about.

Service men and women
Service men and women

I’ll never forget one story my father told about his war—World War I. When he was in the Army on the Western Front, he and his company marched across a desolate battlefield. Wearing gas masks in case of attack, they stumbled across the fields and into a wooded area. When it became so dark that moving forward was dangerous, they were ordered to lie down and get a few hours sleep. My father was lucky to find a spot on the ground that was not too rocky and he slept soundly. When morning came the men woke up and saw that the soft spots they had found and where they had rested their heads were the bodies of dead German decomposing in the mud. The horror of that morning discovery never left him. Even though he returned home safely, married and raised a family, and led a successful life, the scene was still in his head. Even when he was close to death at the age of 93 he could recall those grim hours on the battlefield seventy years earlier.

All veterans have been marked by their experiences. Some of them are scarred so badly they can never be the same; others seem to return to everyday life without deep trauma, but all of them remember. All of America’s wars—all of the world’s wars—have left indelible scars on those who fought in them. William Dean Howells, the American novelist, describes the impact of the Civil War on President James Garfield. At the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of a lifetime, that never came back again: The sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it,”

The Civil War, the two World Wars, and the Korean War were almost universally felt by Americans. Every family had people serving, every community lost friends and neighbors. The wars since then have directly affected far fewer people, but those who served come back with the same kind of memories and scars. We see Vietnam veterans among the homeless on our city streets, and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in our colleges and workplaces. Some of them carry physical wounds that will affect their lives and the lives of their families for decades to come. Others carry only memories that are not visible to the rest of us, but which will live with them all of their lives.

And yet we continue to have more wars and more veterans. Why can’t we remember how terrible it is? Why do we forget so much of the pain and suffering? I recently read Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor Was Divine which gives a vivid account of the unnecessary pain we Americans inflicted on people of Japanese ancestry who lived among us. Many veterans of the Japanese internment camps are still alive and still carrying memories of the pain of their exclusion from the country they had chosen.

The drones we are sending now to bomb people in the Middle East are creating more memories and more suffering. Children in Pakistan today who lose family members to American drones will carry that pain through most of the 21st century. More wars—more veterans. When will it ever stop? When will the world learn that we already have enough veterans to honor? Let’s honor the veterans we have and work to prevent more wars that will continue the cycle of suffering and remembrance forever.