March 4, 2012 (The Baltimore Sun) – March is designated as Women’s History Month, an opportunity to remember the role women have played in U.S. history since our nation’s inception.
To serve in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Deborah Sampson, a school teacher, disguised herself as a man to become one of only a handful of women with documented military combat service from that era. She was wounded in battle in 1782 just outside Tarrytown, N.Y., where she was struck by two musket balls in the leg. Fearful she’d be discovered, she removed one of the bullets herself using a pen knife and allowed the other to heal over. A year later, she developed a fever and the treating physician kept her secret, enabling her to serve until the Treaty of Paris. She received an honorable discharge and a small sum of money to cover her travel expenses home after her service.
Ms. Sampson, who went on to lecture about her Army experience, later battled Congress for a military pension which was officially granted in 1816 after numerous attempts — including a letter written by her friend Paul Revere.
Former slave Cathay Williams followed a similar path, hiding her gender and enlisting in the Army for a three-year term inSt. Louis, Mo., shortly after the Civil War. She served two years before a surgeon discovered her gender. Considered the first documented African-American woman to successfully enlist in the Army, Williams also battled Congress for a military pension. Without famous friends fighting on her behalf, her pension was never granted.
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These two women embodied a spirit that overcame gender barriers and proved that women can serve equally alongside men. Throughout our history, countless strong women broke the norm to follow their hearts, making a difference in the lives of and inspiring those around them. Today, women comprise the fastest growing segment of the veteran population. Comprehensive care for women veterans is now the standard, rather than the exception at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facilities throughout the country. Still, too many women veterans don’t know they’re eligible for comprehensive medical services from the VA, including disease prevention, primary care, gender-specific health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health care and long term care, among other services. Many don’t know that programs offering specialized care for trauma in residential or inpatient settings are available to women veterans needing more intense treatment and support, and some programs serve women only or have women-only treatment cohorts.
At the VA Maryland Health Care System, we are committed and ready to serve the increasing number of women returning home from military duty as combat veterans who are now stepping back into their roles as wives and mothers. All they have to do is enroll to access their health care benefits. Enrolling for VA health care is free and easy and can be accomplished by clicking on the “Become A Patient” button on our web page: http://www.maryland.va.gov. Women veterans may also drop by their local VA medical center or outpatient clinic or call the VA Maryland Health Care System’s Community Outreach office at 1-800-949-1000, ex. 6071 to enroll for VA health benefits.
Remind the women veterans you know and love that caring for themselves may be the best way to care for their families.
Dennis H. Smith, Baltimore
The writer is director of the VA Maryland Health Care System.