Women have been pioneering their way into military service from the birth of America.
Some served nobly and didn’t receive recognition until years later. Others were known as “Women Reservists” despite their essential roles. And, earlier, there were those who masqueraded as men so that they could serve their country.
As a tribute to women veterans everywhere, here are the stories of 8 female veterans — some of whom may surprise you!
1. Bea Arthur
Famous Maude and Golden Girls actress Bea Arthur first served as a truck driver in the Marine Corps.
She enlisted at the age of 21 in 1943, and was immediately noted for her “aggressive” and “argumentative” nature; this followed Arthur into her acting career, where she was known for being outspoken.
SSG Arthur was one of the first women to become an active Marine. The service was almost exclusively male until World War II, when it opened its ranks to both genders, probably due to shortages.
Starting out as a typist in D.C., she also served as a truck driver at Marine air stations in Virginia and North Carolina. She married fellow Marine Robert Alan Arthur a year into her service.
From private to corporal, to sergeant, to staff sergeant, Arthur advanced quickly before being honorably discharged in 1945. She returned to her birthplace of New York to study acting, and became the household name she is today.
2. Harriet Tubman
Tubman is best known for helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad in the 1850s.
She escaped slavery herself in 1849, and dedicated her life to assisting others. She rescued over 70 enslaved people, family and friends using a network of safe houses called the Underground Railroad.
Tubman also served as a cook, nurse, and spy for the Union during the Civil War.
She was the first woman in American history to lead a military expedition. She helped Col. James Montgomery plan a raid to free slaves from plantations in South Carolina.
On June 1, 1863, Tubman and several hundred male soldiers floated down the Combahee River in three gunboats. Using scouts to gather intel, Tubman knew the Confederates’ positions and where they had placed torpedoes in the water.
They freed 750 slaves and did not suffer a single casualty.
3. Tulsi Gabbard
Maj. Gabbard, of the Hawaii National Guard, became the first official to voluntarily leave public office to serve in a war.
At an impressive 21 years of age, she was elected to the Hawaii State Legislature in 2002. However, two years later she decided to leave her position to fight in the War on Terrorism.
“In the military, I learned that ‘leadership’ means raising your hand and volunteering for the tough, important assignments,” Gabbard said.
Gabbard has served two tours of duty; the first was a 12-month tour in Iraq in 2004, where she provided medical support in the field. Her second tour was in Kuwait as a military police platoon leader.
She was elected to Congress in 2012 as its first Samoan-American and Hindu member.
Throughout her political career, Gabbard has advocated for veterans, including passing the Helping Heroes Fly Act. This law ensures the proper treatment and privacy of disabled and wounded veterans going through airport security.
She is currently planning her 2020 presidential campaign, and continues to serve as a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard.
4. Martha McSally
Col. McSally made history as the first American woman to fly in combat.
“In 1984, I was attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and told my first flight instructor that I was going to be a fighter pilot,” McSally said.
“He just laughed, but after Congress repealed the prohibition law in 1991, he looked me up and said he was amazed I had accomplished my goal.”
She flew the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II over Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Southern Watch. She was also the first female commander of a fighter squadron.
Her most memorable mission was in Afghanistan.
The 345th Fighter Squadron was called in to take out insurgents; with friendlies surrounding the targets, they quickly had to identify enemy location.
Suddenly, all of McSally’s computerized weapon sights failed. She needed to use the old ‘standby pipper’ sight and get ready to shoot her gun manually.
“I had to be at an exact dive angle, airspeed, and altitude when opening fire in order to be accurate,” McSally said. “We destroyed the enemy on several passes.”
In 2001, McSally sued the Department of Defense, challenging the policy that required US and UK servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear full body coverage when traveling off base. McSally had been fighting the policy for years, and only filed the lawsuit after she was threatened with a court martial.
“I can fly a single-seat aircraft in enemy territory, but in Saudi Arabia I can’t drive a vehicle,” she said.
The policy was lifted in 2002, though women were still encouraged to wear the abaya (body-covering garment) for years afterward.
McSally currently serves as a Senator for the state of Arizona.
5. Ann E. Dunwoody
Dunwoody is the first woman to become a four-star general.
An army brat, she joined up in 1974 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) a year later. She went on to become commander of the Army Materiel Command — one of the Army’s biggest commands — which employs more than 69,000 people across 50 states and 145 countries.
“It was Ann’s most recent role, as commander of the AMC, in which she unified global logistics in a way [that has never] been done,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.
Gen. Dunwoody was not only very successful in her own career, but a champion of women’s rights in the military.
“Over the last 38 years I have had the opportunity to witness women soldiers jump out of airplanes, hike 10 miles, lead men and women, even under the toughest circumstances,” she said at her retirement ceremony in 2012.
“Today, what was once a band of brothers has truly become a band of brothers and sisters.”
Tampa, Florida is Dunwoody’s current place of residence. She lives with her dog, Barney, and her husband, Ret. Air Force Col. Craig Brotchie, who serves on the board of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
6. Eileen Collins
Col. Collins was fascinated by airplanes from a young age, and joined the Air Force in 1979.
She served as a T-38 flight instructor and a C-141 Starlifter aircraft commander and instructor pilot. Collins was an assistant professor of mathematics, as well as a T-41 instructor pilot, at the Air Force Academy. In 1990 she graduated from Air Force Test Pilot School.
NASA selected Collins for the astronaut program, and in 1995 she became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. Then, in 1999, she was the first female shuttle commander.
Collins retired in 2006 after four successful shuttle missions. She has more than 5,000 hours in 30 types of aircraft, and over 537 hours in space.
“You have a mission; your boss is the people of the country and you don’t want to disappoint the people,” Collins said.
“Usually toward the end of the mission, you can let your hair down a little bit. That was when you could put your face against the glass, stretch out your arms, and you don’t even see the ship around you, just the Earth below — and you feel like you’re flying over the planet.”
Today, Collins serves as a director of USAA, Vice Chair of their Risk Committee, and a part of their Member and Technology and Nominating and Governance committees.
7. Tammy Duckworth
LTC Duckworth was a combat helicopter pilot in the Iraq War.
Coming from a long line of military men, Duckworth commissioned in the Army Reserve in 1992. She decided to fly helicopters because it was one of the only combat jobs open to women at the time.
In 2004, Duckworth was working towards a Phd in political science when she deployed to Iraq. On November 12, eight months into her deployment, she was piloting a UH-60 Black Hawk when she was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fired by Iraqi insurgents.
She lost both her legs and partial use of her right arm. Duckworth received a Purple Heart on December 3, and an Air Medal and Army Commendation Medal.
“I don’t know why I survived Iraq and I don’t know why I made it home, but I do know that this is my second chance at life and I can do whatever I want now,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth ran for office, won, and was appointed assistant secretary of Veteran Affairs by President Obama. Then she served as an Illinois 8th district Rep. until 2017, when she was elected Senator.
After applying for a medical waiver, she continued to serve in the Illinois Army National Guard until her retirement in 2014.
“Veterans are my life’s work,” Duckworth stated. “From the day my buddies saved my life in Iraq, I’ve woken up every single day dedicated to taking care of veterans and doing my best for veterans.”
She still flies as a civilian pilot, and has finished her doctorate, along with several marathons.
8. Sarah Emma Edmonds
Edmonds, who went by “Franklin Flint Thompson”, was one of very few women to serve in the Civil War. She accomplished this by enlisting as a man.
Originally from Canada, Edmonds moved to Flint, Michigan in 1856 and joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a male field nurse. She had fled her hometown to escape a forced marriage, and learned that life was easier when she posed as a man.
Edmonds saw the Second Battles of Manassas and Antietam. As a nurse she had her hands full; Antietam was known as one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
She also supposedly infiltrated the Confederate army as a Union spy. Her aliases included Southern sympathizer Charles Mayberry, a black man named Cuff, and Irish peddler Bridget O’Shea.
Her military service came to an end when she contracted malaria. Instead of being discovered as a woman, she decided to desert the army and start a new life as a female nurse in Washington, D.C.
Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, an autobiography, was published in 1865, and quickly became a bestseller.
Edmonds was awarded an honorable discharge from the military, a government pension, and admittance to the Grand Army of the Republic.