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Women’s History Month: Trailblazers in National Guard history

By Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Michelle Gonzalez | National Guard Bureau | March 02, 2016

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Norma Parsons. Diane Dowd. Leigh Ann Hester. They are just some of the women who have made an indelible mark on National Guard history and paved the way for future generations.

Last year alone saw women graduate from the Army’s Ranger School and combat engineer program.

Most recently, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all military positions and occupations would be open to women. This historic announcement is the most recent barrier to fall for women serving in the armed forces.

As history can attest, Guard women have been blazing a path for 60 years.

The First Air and Army Guard officers

After World War II, the Army kept the Women’s Army Corps and held a limited number of active and reserve female officer nurse positions. Some Air National Guard commanders received authorization in the early 1950s to use female officer augmentees from the Air Force Reserve to work and train in medical units. However, these women would return to their Reserve status once units mobilized, compromising the Guard units’ readiness.

In an effort to maintain a high level of readiness during the Cold War, Congress pushed forward legislation allowing women to join the National Guard, yet only as officers in medical fields. President Eisenhower signed the bill into law on July 30, 1956.

Two days later, Capt. Norma Parsons became the first woman to join the Air Guard followed by the first woman to join the Army Guard in January 1957, 1st Lt. Sylvia Marie St. Charles Law.

Parsons, who had served on active duty with the Army Nurse Corps during World War II was sworn in as a nurse with the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Tactical Hospital. After being promoted to major in 1958, Parsons started a program of specialized nurse training that was adopted, in part, by other Air Force medical evacuation units. Parsons retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1968.

Law, after being extended temporary federal recognition, joined the Alabama National Guard’s 109th Evacuation Hospital. After completing the Army’s six-week orientation course, Law returned to her unit and received federal recognition.

First pilot

Starting in 1976, women could attend flight training. Two years later, 2nd Lt. Marilyn Koon, a former North Dakota Guard member, became the Air National Guard's first female pilot with the Arizona National Guard's 161st Air Refueling Group. Koon also led the first Air Guard all-female crew to fly a tanker on a refueling mission in 1984.

First aviator and pilot

In 1973, the Army opened flight training to Army National Guard women. Consequently, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Diane Dowd of the Connecticut National Guard’s 143rd Aviation Co., became the National Guard’s first female aviator.

Starting in 1976, women could attend flight training. Two years later, 2nd Lt. Marilyn Koon, a former North Dakota Guard member, became the Air National Guard’s first female pilot with the Arizona National Guard’s 161st Air Refueling Group. Koon also led the first Air Guard all-female crew to fly a tanker on a refueling mission in 1984.

First adjutant general

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville served on active duty from 1978 to 1984 before transferring to the New York Air Guard. After joining the Vermont Guard in 1988, Rainville became the state’s adjutant general in March 1997—the first woman in the National Guard’s history to hold the position. Rainville’s accomplishments as adjutant general range from oversight of the immediate mobilization of the 158th Fighter Wing on Sept. 11, 2001 to helping Vermont’s state partner Republic of Macedonia in expanding their agribusiness and tourism industries by facilitating business relationships. Rainville retired in April 2006.

Enlisted women

Although women were allowed to join the National Guard as officers in 1956, women were not able to join the ranks as enlisted members until 1968. Even after integrating women into the military, the roles women filled were classified as combat support. Despite the non-combat role classification, women would find themselves in combat situations, like Pfc. Charla Shull and Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester.

Shull, of the Missouri National Guard’s 1138th Military Police Company, became the first Guardswoman to come under enemy fire in December 1989 while on a routine training mission in Panama. Shull later served with the 1138th in Operation Desert Storm.

Hester, a military police officer assigned to the Kentucky National Guard’s 617th Military Police Company, is the first woman to receive the Silver Star since World War II and the first to be cited for valor in close quarters combat for her actions in March 2005.

The impact of these Guard firsts contributed to the changes made to the National Guard and the Department of Defense.