JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
The director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Advisory Committee on Women Veterans was guest speaker for a Women’s’ History Month event led by Navy Medicine Training Support Center’s Diversity Committee and Soldiers assigned to the 106th Signal Brigade at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston March 13.
Retired Command Master Chief Octavia Harris, now a Department of Veterans Affairs top adviser for women veterans issues, described changes in the military services as she addressed those attending the joint-service observance at the Fort Sam Houston Theater.
“When I joined the Navy at 18, our force was about nine percent women,” said Harris, a San Antonio resident. “Aside from boot camp, I believe I saw my first female leaders when I became a petty officer second class.”
Women’s History Month honors and celebrates the struggles and achievements of American women throughout the history of the United States. This year’s theme, “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence,” honors women who have led efforts to end violence and injustice.
This year marks the 111th year of women serving in the Navy. The first women to serve in the Navy were nurses, beginning with the “Sacred Twenty,” appointed after Congress established the Navy Nurse Corps, May 13, 1908.
Harris said the majority of her mentors early in her career were men.
“There were not many senior women around,” she said. “It makes you notice today how much we have grown as a nation and a military in supporting the female’s perspective on any conflict resolution at home or in a war zone.”
Harris said the growth came as a result of a nation and military that learned to value input and contributions despite a person’s background or gender.
“Part of valuing diversity is appreciating another point of view that is contributory to any mission in our armed forces,” Harris said. “We [women] are now about 18 percent of the force. We have already had many firsts when it comes to women leaders. That demonstrates we’ve come a long way in having a say in how to lead, analyze and make decisions, creating environments where everyone can benefit from that perspective, which wasn’t allowed in the past.”
Over the years, women have made history, serving in roles that were once exclusively available to men. Deborah Sampson became a hero of the American Revolution when she disguised herself as a man and joined the Patriot forces. She was the only woman to earn a full military pension for her participation in the Revolutionary Army.
“She disguised herself as a man because she knew that was the only way she could serve on the front lines without the permission she’d never get,” Harris said. “She decided she wanted to serve alongside her countrymen and proved that her perspective and contributions to the war effort were significant.”
Retired Adm. Michelle Howard was the Navy’s first African American woman to command a Navy ship when she assumed command of USS Rushmore (LSD 47) March 12, 1999. In 2014, Howard became the Navy’s four-star admiral, retiring as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations in 2017.
“We earned a role in those positions because we proved that we can champion, not only peace and nonviolence, but we can lead in areas where we weren’t allowed in the past,” said Harris. “Whether ashore or at sea, whether in peacetime or war, women are invaluable to our armed forces and have taken our place in every way possible to serve.”
Staff Sgt. Iesha Cooper, noncommissioned officer in charge of training and schools for the 106th Signal Brigade was the event master of ceremonies. She said seeing the different JBSA-FSH commands and branches come together for a common cause was something she was happy to be part of.
“I think it’s important that we hold these events to remember and honor the women who have paved the way for all of us here today,” Cooper said. “These observances allow us to reach and teach, while encouraging young women in the military to go after whatever it is they want out of this life.”