Forty-six years ago, two women from different sides of the country took the oath to join an auxiliary branch of the U.S. military -- the Women's Army Corps.
The trails they followed eventually led them to Fort Lee as members of the medical team at Kenner Army Health Clinic. What happened along the way are both heart-tugging and tragic experiences that would change their lives forever.
Sheila Robinson, a medical assistant in the Kenner Pediatrics Clinic, grew up in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. She was the eldest of six siblings in a military family. Her love for nursing began in high school when much of her free time was dedicated to volunteer service as a candy-striper at a local hospital. Intent on entering the medical field, she enlisted upon graduation.
Deidrah Lamont, a nursing assistant in Family Medicine, grew up on 23rd Street in the Big Apple. Her desire to join the military was fueled by an urge to "make something of herself," as well as an escalating sense of disgust over protests focused on Vietnam veterans rather than the nation's leaders who ordered them to fight.
"I couldn't understand why the hatred was directed at people instead of the politics," Lamont said. "It was sad watching Walter Cronkite on the news talking about the men who were injured and not welcomed home. I realized I needed to help and wanted to be a medic."
Both Robinson and Lamont did their basic training in 1971 at Fort McClellan, Ala., and then advanced individual training in the medical field at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
The WAC sisterhood was strong, recalled Robinson from those early days with the organization. Existing within the framework of a testosterone-saturated military, the women banded together "regardless of skin color" and regularly proved they could master any soldiering skill, be it weapons qualification, field operations, or land navigation.
"I could take the rifle apart with my eyes closed," Robinson boasted. "They drilled it all into us, right down to, 'this is not your gun; it's your weapon.'"
Unlike their male counterparts, though, they were expected to embrace the role of the "fairer sex" up-to-and-including routine beauty training focused on hair and makeup.
"Women stationed in San Francisco would receive an extra $50 in their pay if they wore makeup," Lamont recalled, "Almay, Bonne Belle and CoverGirl came into the company's classes.
"Back then, they didn't have foundations for blacks, so they would give us sterilized mud to mix with make-up," she continued. "I also was told the reason why they offered these classes to females. The make-up enhanced the class-A uniform and red lipstick would bring out our features. They wanted us seen and to look like baby dolls. I still wear my false eyelashes they taught us to apply."
The minor chauvinistic implications of makeup; however, paled in comparison to the bias they experienced as fledgling female medics tasked with caring for the wounded at the tail end of Vietnam.
"So many were injured," Robinson said with a noticeable hint of sadness. "I was so young, and it was my first time dealing with amputees who happened to be men on top of that. I would have to give them bed baths, which required a lot of physical contact. Being a biracial woman -- my father is black and my mother is Hispanic -- I had to deal with them spitting on me, throwing their trays at me and calling me the "N" word. They didn't want me touching them. I don't think they were so much angry with me … but at the situation. I didn't understand at that time why they were doing this to me. I would go crying to the ward master saying 'they don't want me.' The usual response was, 'Suck it up Soldier, this is what you signed up for.' So, I would go back and try again. I just wanted to help and be of service."
Lamont witnessed another unfortunate reality of war while stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
"We would stabilize (burn victims) so they could be sent on to an Army hospital burn unit," she said. "This one man was so disfigured, all I could see was his blue eyes. He didn't want to go home to his family to see him that way. I recall his eyes were so beautiful and would look at me in a way that indicated he didn't want to live. One day, he came up missing from his room. I went to look for him, and he had drowned himself in the bottom of the whirlpool. It was so sad."
Assimilation into the regular Army ranks when the Women's Army Corps was retired in 1975 would present another set of challenges for female Soldiers in general. A word of caution is necessary for this portion of the story as it contains explicit accounts of discrimination and sexual misconduct.
"A lot of men just flat-out hated us for no other reason than believing we didn't belong in their military," Robinson said. "'You damn women,' they would say to us as a reminder that we were second-class citizens in their eyes."
The Army was ill-equipped for the transition, as well. Lacking bathroom facilities for females, many organizations resorted to a sign on the door reading male and female that could be flipped to indicate who was using the area. "Regardless of what the sign said, the guys would come in on us anyway," the ladies recalled. "It was just sickening."
Incidents of sexual harassment and assault also were commonplace in a military that had yet to introduce mandated equal opportunity and SHARP training. WAC leaders had long realized the dilemma women were facing in the ranks and insisted on the addition of Judo, Karate and other forms of martial arts as part of routine training regimens. As they transitioned to the regular Army ranks, Robinson and Lamont quickly realized how big of a problem they were facing.
Lamont remembered the day she almost became a victim and how she was threatened to the point where she had to be transferred to another duty station.
"I was walking home from the hospital and this Special Forces Soldier grabbed me. He was like six-foot and massive, and I was 97 pounds at that time," she said. "At first, I couldn't get away from him. Then, I remembered what I learned about breaking a hold. I started running and he got ahold of me again. He told me what I was going to do and what I was going to give up. I was so scared. I broke his hold for a third time and gave him a swift kick with my boot and ran. I got up two blocks and turned around, and he was still on the ground. I stopped at a phone booth and called for help."
Later that night, the military police came to her barracks and, without explanation, placed her in handcuffs. They took her to the hospital where a doctor asked her if she kicked the other Soldier. "I couldn't say anything because he hadn't raped me," Lamont recalled. "I was young and dumb and didn't speak up. I found out later the doctor was the one who pressed charges."
Later that week, Lamont was threatened by a group of Soldiers in the mess hall. She remembered being so scared that "she couldn't find her mouth with a fork at lunch." After reporting the incident, a female first sergeant watched over her 24/7 for a week.
"They didn't mess with her because she was an E7 and really tough," Lamont said. "They called most of the senior military women amazons in those days because they were harder looking and so built they could do chin-ups right alongside the men."
Within a week, Lamont was sent to Japan. She remained in the military for ten years, and five of those she spent in the field as a combat medic.
Robinson also experienced an attempted sexual assault that ultimately convinced her it was time to leave the military after 10 years of service. She said the barracks incident occurred while she was attending a noncommissioned officer's training course in Ansbach, Germany.
"The cadre had placed me in a room by myself (and four Soldiers tried to break in)," she said. "One of them said to me at the door, 'I have been to jail … and if I'm going back tonight, I'm going to get me some (expletive deleted). It was so scary and vulgar. They were saying other things like get a condom and go get this and that. The only thing I had to defend myself was a razor blade. … I cut whoever's hand came in that door. Later, I was able to identify them because of that, and they were sent out of the military."
Unfortunately, the tide of Army sexual misconduct wouldn't change much before Robinson -- or Lamont for that matter -- decided to part ways with the military. They noted how the old marching and physical training "Jody calls" would be filled with sexual innuendos and other inappropriate statements about women, thus providing another form of encouragement to the abuser.
"If you complained back then, you were harassed," said Lamont, "and the color of your skin didn't matter. It was the fact you were a woman. The male-dominated military was saying, 'this is not your world; you have no business in here.'"
Robinson added much has changed since their time in uniform, but some can accept elevated expectations for professional conduct and some cannot. "Men can be like a bag of apples," she observed. "A rotten one will spoil the whole bag."
An equal share of troublesome women certainly can exist as well -- sexual discrimination and misconduct are not male-exclusive clubs -- however, arguing the gender issue misses the point. Robinson and Lamont's story is a reflection on an unfortunate point in Army history that encourages change. It's telling also is strategic, given the ongoing observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
Both Kenner employees acknowledge the Army's advancements in the areas of equal opportunity programs that ensure fair treatment regardless of race, color, sex, religion or national origin; and SHARP, which has evolved into an all-out blitz against sexual misconduct in the military ranks.
Despite the turmoil of their active-duty service, Robinson and Lamont expressed a deep sense of pride in their accomplishments and ties to the bygone era of the Army WAC. Their sacrifices, both observed, helped pave the way for the professional Army, which leaves these veteran-civilians content with their continued service in the Army Medical Corps and its mission of taking care of Soldiers and their families.