Wisconsin women and the military - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Wisconsin women and the military

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Wisconsin has a long history of women in the military. A number of nurses distinguished themselves in the Civil War and World War I.

In the second World War, the government estimates a total of 135,000 women served in the U.S. military. Marcia Gates of Cambridge was one of them. An Army nurse in the Philippines, Lt. Gates was one of 68 American nurses captured and held prisoner by the Japanese for nearly three years. 

On the home front, World War II also created a generation of young women who had to learn to do things their mothers never imagined doing, such as driving and household repairs.

And for many, it was only the beginning. they now also had to find a job. And in this part of Wisconsin in WWII, hundreds of them found work making gunpowder at the Badger Army Ordinance plant.

When it was over, the end of the war often created a new conflict on the home front.

"When fathers and husbands and brothers returned from the war, those who did, a generation of women who learned to become very independent and self sufficient, didn't suddenly un-learn those skills. Gender relations had changed forever," notes historian and author Richard Haney. 

By the 1960's, women still made up just a fraction of the American military and most still served as nurses.

But, in Vietnam, more women found themselves serving near the frontlines in jobs other than nursing. Still not allowed in combat, but very much in harm's way.

"You were treated just like the men. If charley blew up the water line, we all had a week without a shower. But you learned to keep your canteen full; just like the men did," says veteran Susan Haack.

Haack, of Dane, was 20 years old when she enlisted in the United States Army in 1968. As an administrative specialist, she was assigned to the U.S. base in Long Binh, where she processed the remains of soldiers who were killed in action.

Two generations later, American women found themselves on more equal, but dangerous footing with men in the military as they began to phase into combat roles in the early 1990's.

Laura Colbert, then Naylor, was a sergeant in Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd police company. She served with Michelle Witmer, the first Wisconsin woman soldier killed in combat. They patrolled in and around Baghdad for more than a year.

"My team leader had never had a female soldier before going into this type of scenario, and when he found out I was on his team, he was very apprehensive, but the more he got to know me and realized I was just as able, if not more willing than a lot of the other guys, then he knew that you can't differentiate by gender any more in the military.'

And the effects of war don't differentiate by gender, either.

"You definitely become a different person. thicker skinned, more, almost, inhuman. I just remember, I was spitting, I was swearing, I was one of the guys, right. and that's not who I am. So, coming back, and trying to transition back into the civilian Laura, was an incredibly difficult thing."

Laura shares more of her story, and we'll have more on the other women in this story, in our special, "Our Wisconsin-A Military History of America's Dairyland", Friday, November 23, 7-8 p.m. on WKOW-TV.

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