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Ladies Lead the Way: Female Vets With Service Medals

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, pictured right, is the only female service member to have earned the Medal of Honor.

On April 7, 2001, Vietnam veteran Karen Offutt was presented The Soldier’s Medal – 31 years after her actions saved the lives of Vietnamese adults and children from several burning structures.

Despite her heroic actions on January 24, 1970, she was told that women do not receive The Soldier’s Medal.

Since the American Revolution, women have served in this nation’s armed forces.  Despite the objections like the one Offutt heard, many have distinguished themselves and earned the nation’s highest service medals.

What follows is an honor roll of the female veterans who have done so.


The Medal of Honor

America’s highest and most prestigious military decoration, it is usually awarded by the president in the name of Congress.

  • Dr. Mary Edwards Walker – A Civil War veteran, she is the only one in this prestigious group of female veterans to have received the military’s highest military honor. She is the only woman to have been awarded it in general.


Distinguished Service Cross

This is the nation’s second highest military medal given to a soldier. The seven female veterans below have been bestowed this honor.

  • Jane Jeffery, Beatrice MacDonald, Helen Grace McClelland, Eva Jean Parmelee and Isabelle Stambaugh – These five Army nurses cared for wounded soldiers while under attack by German forces during World War I.
  • Emma Sloan – A civilian nurse who worked with the aforementioned five Army nurses also received the medal as well.
  • Virginia Hall – A civilian who was a spy in the best sense of the word during the Second World War, the Germans considered her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”


The Navy Cross

The second-highest military decoration for valor in combat, it is awarded to members of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

  • Lenah S. Higbee – One of the first twenty women to serve in the Navy, she is the first woman to receive the award for her service as the second Superintendent of the US Navy Nurse Corps.
  • Lillian M. Murphy, Marie L. Hidell and Edna E. Place – These three Navy nurses died because of their service to the servicemembers struck down during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. All three were awarded the medal posthumously.


The Silver Star Medal

This award is the country’s third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat.

  • Linnie Leckrone, Jane Rignel and Irene Robel – These three Army nurses served during World War I but were posthumously awarded the Silver Star for their bravery on the front lines in Europe in 2007.
  • Lieutenants Mary Roberts, Elaine Roe, Virginia Rourke, and Ellen Ainsworth – This quartet of Army nurses received Silver Stars for evacuating 42 patients by flashlight from a hospital under German fire during the Battle of Anzio in 1944.  Ainsworth’s award was posthumous.
  • Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester – Awarded in 2005, she is the first woman to be awarded the Silver Star since World War II.
  • Specialist Monica Lin Brown – An Army medic, she became the first female soldier to receive the Silver Star for combat in Afghanistan in 2008.

Army Spc. Monica Lin Brown was awarded the Silver Star at just 19 years old. Credit:

The Distinguished Service Medal

An Army medal, it is presented to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the United States military, has earned distinction through meritorious service.

  • Dr. Anna H. Shaw – A civilian, she is the first woman to receive the medal in 1918.

What follows is a list of the female veterans who were Army nurses, and gained the medal during World War I:

  • Warrant Officer Lillian Aubert, Chief Nurse Celia Brennan, Chief Nurse Katharine Brown, Lieutenant Sophy Mary Burns, Lieutenant Reba G. Cameron, Reserve Nurse Edna M. Coughlin, Director Jane A. Delano, Chief Nurse Alice H. Flash, Contract Nurse Annie W. Goodrich, Lieutenant Carrie L. Howard, Lieutenant Grace E. Leonard, Chief Nurse Beatrice M. MacDonald, Reserve Nurse Helen G. McClelland, Captain Sayres Louise Milliken, Lieutenant Jane G. Malloy, Chief Nurse Edith A. Mury, Chief Nurse Adele S. Posten, Chief Nurse Maria B. Rhodes, Captain Blance S. Rulon, Lieutenant Lillian J. Ryan, Lieutenant Mary E. Sheehan, Lieutenant Neena Shelton, Judy Shere, Lieutenant Catherine G. Sinnott, Chief Nurse Ethel E. Sweet, Superintendent Dora E. Thompson, Lieutenant Patricia Ann Tracey, Chief Nurse Lynette L. Vandervort, and Lieutenant Margaret S. Washburn.
  • General Rhonda Cornum – An Army flight surgeon she was shot down over Iraq in 1991. Captured and suffering from two broken arms, a broken finger and a gunshot wound in the back, she said her first thought was, “Nobody’s ever died from pain.” Besides this medal, she earned the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Purple Heart, Air Medal and Prisoner of War Medal.
  • General Ann E. Dunwoody – The first woman in American history to achieve the rank of four-star general.
  • Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Director Oveta C. Hobby – The first woman to be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal during World War II.


The Navy Distinguished Service Medal

Created in 1919, it is a military decoration given to sailors and Marines for distinguished and exceptionally meritorious service.

  • Lieutenant Commander Mildred H. McAfee – She was the first director of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the first woman commissioned in the Naval Reserve, and the first woman to receive the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.


The Legion of Merit

This decoration is a military award of the United States Armed Forces presented for outstanding services to the seven uniformed services of the United States.

  • Colonel Ruby Bradley – The most decorated of female veterans, she served as an Army nurse during World War II and the Korean War.  As POW for two years during the Second World War, she became known as the “Angel in Fatigues.” The two Legion of Merit medals and two Bronze Stars she earned are a fraction of the 34 medals and citations she received.

Col. Ruby Bradley. Credit: Working Nurses.

The Distinguished Flying Cross

  • Amelia Earhart – The famed flyer was the first and only civilian woman to garner the award in 1932.
  • Lieutenant Aleda E. Lutz (posthumously) – An Army nurse, she was the first female military member awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in a world war, and she was also the first woman to die in a combat zone in World War Two.
  • Lieutenant Roberta S. Ross – A flight nurse during World War II, she received the DFC for completing 200 flights in the China-India theater.  She also earned two Air Medals.
  • Colonel Jacqueline Cochran – The first woman in the newly formed Air Force to break the sound barrier and for her service as an Air Force pilot during and after World War II, she was awarded the DFC with two oak leaf clusters.  During her career, she was also awarded the following: Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal and Defence Medal (United Kingdom).
  • Colonel Eileen M. Collins – The first female space shuttle pilot and the first female space shuttle mission commander, she received a DFC in 1999.
  • Colonel Kim Nichole Reed-Campbell – The first woman to receive the DFC for valor in 2003 for safely flying and landing her crippled A-10.
  • Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lori Hill – While serving in Iraq in 2006, the Army Kiowa helicopter pilot became the first military woman t
    o be awarded the DFC for heroism by engaging the enemy while being wounded and flying a damaged aircraft.


The Soldier’s Medal

  • Staff Sergeant Joan Hahnenberg – While serving aboard an Army vessel in 1989, she saved the life of a fellow soldier who had fallen overboard.
  • Sergeant First Class Jeanne Balcombe – While serving in Korea in 1999, this soldier posthumously received this award for placing herself in harm’s way to protect three soldiers from a gunman.


The Bronze Star

  • Lieutenant Cordelia E. Cook – An Army nurse serving in Italy during World War II, she also received a Purple Heart, making her the first woman to receive both awards.
  • Lieutenant Annie G. Fox – As Head Nurse at Hickman Field on December 7, 1941, she continued to care for patients during the attack.  She was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart Medals.
  • Captain Kimberly Hampton – An Army helicopter pilot, she was the first woman military pilot in American history to be shot down and killed in action.  She also received the Air Medal and Purple Heart.
  • Lieutenant Ashley White – One of the first women to serve in a combat role in Afghanistan in 2011, this soldier posthumously received this medal as well as the Purple Heart and the Meritorious Service Medal.
  • Captain Jennifer Moreno – An Army nurse serving with a Ranger unit in Afghanistan in 2013, she posthumously also received the Purple Heart.


The Purple Heart

This medal is awarded in the name of the president to those killed or wounded while serving, on or after April 5, 1917.

  • Annie Fox – The first woman to receive the Purple Heart while serving during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. 
  • Rita Palmer, Rosemary Hogan and Mary B. Menzie are female veterans who all received this award for their actions in the Pacific during World War II.
  • Jacqueline Kidd – She received the medal for injuries sustained as an air traffic controller at the Pentagon Helipad on 9/11.

CPT Annie Fox. Credit:

Air Medal

  • Lt. Elsie S. Ott – An Army nurse, she was the first woman to receive the Air Medal in 1943 for her actions during an evacuation flight from India to America.
  • Lt. Reba Whittle – Another Army nurse, she received an Air Medal and Purple Heart for her actions in a German POW camp during World War II.
  • Lt. F. Rosalind Westfall – A nurse and member of the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, she cared for her patients during the long flights from Paris to the Azores and then on to Bermuda or Newfoundland and then, finally, to New York or Miami.
  • Lt. j.g. Regina Kauffman, Lieutenant Marcia Sonon and Aviation Machinist Wendy Westbrook all received Air Medals for their actions for their actions during the downing of an EP-3E Aires II Surveillance Plane over China in 2001.


Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal

  • Lt. Rebecca Turpin – A Marine serving in Afghanistan in 2008 – 2009, she was awarded this medal with a valor device while leading a convoy mission.

There is no doubt that this list is incomplete, but it does complete the idea that female veterans have served as bravely as their male counterparts and earned the nation’s military highest awards – and its respect.

Read the stories of 8 accomplished women veterans, including some from this list, here


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