Across the armed services, women made up 16 percent of the active-duty military as of 2017 — by branch, that number ranged from 8.4 percent within the Marine Corps to nearly 20 percent within the Air Force. Their representation is small and growing only marginally — in 2007, women in uniform made up 14.4 percent of the force — and their stories tend to be ignored in favor of legacies left by men who have shaped the narrative of service to country. Despite being overlooked, servicewomen are forging new career paths for themselves and the next generation as they enter jobs that were once closed to them. Consider pioneers like Capt. Rosemary Mariner, who was one of the first female Navy pilots in the 1970s and the first woman to lead a naval aviation squadron. She died in January from ovarian cancer, and her memory was honored last month with a flyover using all-female pilots. Or First Lt. Marina A. Hierl, who in 2018 became the first woman in the Marine Corps to command an infantry platoon.
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For International Women’s Day, The Times asked servicewomen and veterans to send us the stories that defined their experiences in the military. We left it to them whether to share their accomplishments, the challenges they faced or something unforgettable from their time in the military. Below is a selection of the more than 650 submissions we received.
Not Many Women Get to Do What I Do
Chief Petty Officer Stella Sierra-Chierici, Navy, 1999-Present
I am a jet engine mechanic on the F/A-18F Super Hornet. Not many women or men will ever get the opportunity to do what I do. It’s been tough at times throughout my career to have men tell me they will not work for me because I’m a woman. I say to them: “That’s O.K. You don’t have to follow me, but I will bring you along.”
Representing Witches’ Rights
Melissa R. Grayce, Air Force, 1988-98
When I was stationed in Germany, I was part of a group that wanted to use a recreation center to hold meetings for Wiccans. My letter to the editor, printed in Stars and Stripes, began a journey in which I became a representative for witches’ rights in the military. I still have my dog tags, which indicate my religion as Wiccan.
‘If They Were Going, I Was Going Too’
J Gayle Gaymon, Navy, 1972-75
I decided to enlist during the Vietnam War. My cousins, who were also my close friends, were being drafted and volunteering for other branches to avoid the Army draft. I was afraid that they would not return. So I decided that if they were going, I was going too.
The Whole Office Saw a Video of Me Naked
Petty Officer First Class Liberty Law, Navy, 2004-Present
In 2006, a male shipmate got into my barracks room and placed a camera in my bathroom and set it to record. I found it only after getting out of the shower. I took the camera to my male chief, whom I had known for only about a month. He assured me that he would get to the bottom of it. By lunchtime, the strange looks from everyone became obvious. Another shipmate told me that everyone in the company office had passed the camera around and saw the video of me naked, getting into and out of the shower.
I Didn’t Tell My Family I Was Enlisting
Staff Sgt. Ruth Navarro, Army, 2006-Present
I come from a Hispanic family and am the only woman in my family to have joined the Army. I didn’t tell them I was enlisting until the day I left. I was very young and was afraid they would try to talk me out of enlisting. I know I deeply hurt them, but thankfully, they’ve since come to support my decision.
A Lifetime of Firsts
Rear Adm. Wendi Bryan Carpenter, retired, Navy, 1977-2011
As some have said, if we put on our flight boots, we were often becoming a “first” at something. I was the first female Navy pilot to instruct in the T-44 Pegasus trainer for the advanced maritime prop pipeline. I was one of the first female instructors in the EC-130 aircraft for “Take Charge and Move Out” squadrons. I was also among the first mission commanders and maintenance check pilots. I was among the first female aviation assignment officers. I was the first female naval aviator to be promoted to the rank of one-star and then two-star admiral in the Navy. I was the first woman to command the Navy’s Warfare Development Command.
Being Beautiful and a Soldier
Staff Sgt. San Juanita Escobar, Texas Army National Guard, 2007-Present
I am currently Mrs. Texas Galaxy. When I was a National Guard recruiter, I came across many young women who said they couldn’t join because they were too “girlie.” So I started to compete in beauty pageants again to prove that you can still be and feel beautiful and follow any career path you want.
There Was Nowhere for Me to Sleep
Petty Officer First Class Jean Coriat, retired, Navy, 2004-18
In 2004, I had orders to be stationed on the U.S.S. Fitzgerald, which at the time was stationed in San Diego. When my ship finally pulled in, I found out I was the first female enlisted sailor to ever be stationed onboard. They didn’t even have a place for me to sleep.
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Bringing Everyone Home Safely
Capt. Ja’Mia Rowland, Army, 2003-Present
I have served for 16 years in the National Guard, Reserves and on active duty, and I have become accustomed to being the only person in the room who looks like me. My greatest accomplishment was taking command and deploying over 125 troops into combat and bringing them all home safely to their loved ones. I don’t think there is anything that will ever compare to that.
‘I Smoked the Hell Out of Some of Those Men’
Nicola Hall, Army, 2000-5
In early 2002, I deployed to Afghanistan with the 21st Military Police Company (Airborne). The infantry was facing issues running combat patrols because the local women were hiding intelligence, weapons and high-value targets. It would have been cultural warfare for the male infantrymen to search these women. They needed a “high-speed female” to go on combat patrols and missions with them — and I was selected. My unit treated me no differently because I was a woman. I was referred to as “Hall.” I was a leader, a paratrooper and I smoked the hell out of some of those men.
A Misunderstood Job
Lesley-Anne Crumpton, Army, 2010-18
In 2015, I assisted with the integration of women into Ranger School for the first time in history. These efforts helped to change the combat exclusion ban on women in direct ground combat and ushered in the opening of all positions for women in the armed forces. My job was very controversial. I was part of a group of servicewomen attached to the three phases of Ranger School and walked the lanes with the Ranger students. Three women completed the course, and I personally got to watch one of them ace her leadership patrol and lead the pack like it was second nature.
Many Days, I Contemplated Suicide
Florence Shmorgoner, Marine Corps, 2014-Present
In 2015, I was sexually assaulted, and I waited until 2017 to report it because I was scared that I would not be believed or, worse, that I would be deemed a “troublemaker” in my platoon. It took about a year for the whole process to end. I was fortunate enough to go to counseling and see a psychologist and was found to have depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD — all stemming from the assault. I struggled with my self-worth more than I would like to admit. Many days, I contemplated suicide. Not because I felt like a burden but because the pain I felt every day was nearly unbearable. To this day, I still have nightmares of the assault. But I have found peace, which I have learned is all that matters.
My Daughter Re-enlisted With Me
Julie Ballard Squires, Navy, 1982-94
The day I re-enlisted, my daughter, Jessica, who was not quite 2, was in attendance and decided that she did not want to sit with my friend. My commanding officer told me to bring her up, so I did. We re-enlisted together, which was wholly fitting because I had recently gotten divorced, and Jessica was the reason I chose to stay on active duty.
My Drill Sergeant Looked Out for Me
Sgt. Joelene Schwebke, Army, 2012-Present
After graduating from college in 2008, I really wanted to serve in the military. Unfortunately, this meant I would have to hide that I am a lesbian. At the time, being openly gay in the service was forbidden. In 2011, my recruiter called me back and told me that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had been repealed. I joined the Army in late 2011, and I was fortunate to have a wonderful drill sergeant, who made me feel comfortable during basic training and didn’t treat me differently. He made a point to let me know he wouldn’t tolerate any discrimination toward me.
In Puerto Rico, I Met a Woman Who Gave Birth During the Hurricane
Mary-Elizabeth Pratt, Coast Guard, 2015-2019
After Hurricane Maria, I was deployed to do recovery operations in eastern and central Puerto Rico. The amazing resilience of the Puerto Rican people couldn’t compare to anything I had ever seen before. There was a woman about my age (I was 22 at the time) with a very young baby. I asked her how old she was, and she said the infant was about 4 weeks old — meaning she had been born either during or in the days after the hurricane. I can’t imagine having a baby without a doctor, running water or electricity. But there she was, showing me her beautiful baby girl.
Two Years Ago, I Finally Started Serving as My True Self
Staff Sgt. Kate Cole, Army, 2008-Present
I served in the Army for nine years as someone else. About two years ago, I was able to start serving openly as a transgender woman. I’ve faced discrimination since I’ve come out and lost some friends, but it has been worth it. I’ve gained a lot personally and professionally and have become part of a community that is open and willing to embrace change. I’ve had several soldiers tell me I’ve changed their views on not only transgender service members but also female service members being in combat arms.
I Deployed to Afghanistan and Left Behind My 8-Month-Old Daughter
Kristi Farmer-Hudson, Air Force, 2002-14
I deployed to Afghanistan for eight months when my first child was only eight months old. My family was stationed in Germany at the time, and because my husband was also active duty, he had to take our daughter to the United States, so our family could care for her. Our daughter spent four months in Georgia with my husband’s family and then five months in New Jersey with my parents. My mother brought her back to Germany when she was 18 months old.
Sailors Can Also Be Dancers
Shanon Lavin, Navy, 2014-18
While I was a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, I founded the first official dance team. The team has since doubled in size and performs at N.C.A.A. football and basketball games.
I Love the Marine Corps, but the Misogyny Has to Stop
Sgt. Virginia Jones, Marine Corps, 2014-Present
Despite being recognized as one of the best Marines in my unit, I’ve been stalked, harassed, doxxed and assaulted. Still, I’ve volunteered to teach young Marines early in their careers about how to treat all Marines with respect. I am very vocal about bringing awareness to the misogyny that is rampant within the military, especially the Marine Corps. I love Marines, but I do not love everything that myself and other Marines have been through.
I’ve Been Left Behind Because I Am a Woman
Tech. Sgt. Holly Ward, Air Force, 2006-Present
On all three of my overseas deployments, I was the only woman on my team. I lived separately, usually farther away from daily meeting points. I was left behind on major movements, forgotten about and asked to form up over an hour before my male colleagues, simply because I was a woman and lived elsewhere. On one deployment, my team forgot to notify me that we were leaving the country the next day. It turned out the announcement had been made in the male barracks only. I made the flight, but it still stung that I learned the information secondhand. I chose at that moment to dedicate my career to fighting for better inclusion.
‘You’ve Changed the Way I Feel About Women in the Army’
Megen Schlesinger, Army, 2008-19
I took company command within the Army Special Operations community, and many of the men under my command had never worked with a female soldier before. On my first day, I had to tell my new battalion commander that I had found out the day before that I was pregnant with my first child. Rather than make me feel obligated to apologize for the “inconvenience,” he congratulated me, without hesitation. As I navigated pregnancy and new motherhood, my team was supportive and embraced me as a member of their brotherhood. When my command came to a close, my command sergeant major, who has over 15 years in Special Forces, made a point to tell me, “Ma’am, you’ve changed the way I feel about women in the Army.”
I Started Over
Michelle Sacco, Coast Guard, 2006-Present
I originally wanted to be a rescue swimmer, but I was told by my recruiter that I was too small and wouldn’t be able to save anyone, despite my swimming abilities and career as a lifeguard before I enlisted. I was then misled into taking a job I didn’t want to do. After five years with no guidance or mentorship, I switched to an entirely new profession within the Coast Guard and started over. I am now preparing to take the test to make chief petty officer — a goal that I almost gave up.
I Was My Unit’s First Female Officer
Micki Duran, Marine Corps, 2006-17
I cherish my time in the Marine Corps, but there were many challenges, especially as the first female officer at my first unit. Once, during a meeting about a fun physical-fitness event we could put on for Marines, someone insinuated that I could be a “cheerleader.” Another time, I sent a researched and thoughtful email to my peers about how to address a group consisting of many men and one woman. Later, at an alcohol-fueled unit event, a peer and his wife both yelled over the bar noise that despite that email, I wasn’t a “bitch” after all.
‘Thank You for Paving the Way for Me’
Anne Krause, Air Force, 1990-99
I graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1990. Every time I met a woman who graduated from the academy in the previous decade, I thanked her for paving the way for me. It never really dawned on me that I was helping to blaze the trail for others until I went to an air show with my family many years later. I sought out the Thunderbirds’ executive officer (the position I once held) to say hello. The first thing she said to me was, “Thank you for paving the way for me.” That remark caught me by complete surprise. I remain inspired to climb with one hand while extending the other to help another woman up.
I Felt Like a Proud Parent
Sgt. First Class Winnie Moore, Army Reserve, 1999-2003; Army, 2003-5, 2007-Present
I remember one day my company all took the Army’s physical-fitness test and a few people failed it. One woman could not do a single push-up or sit-up, but she passed the run. Usually these types of failures are sent home. As a drill sergeant, I asked for her to be placed in my platoon and said I would work with her. She went from zero to 25 push-ups and 65 sit-ups. I truly felt like a proud parent.
Leading the Way for Other L.G.B.T. Service Members
Sgt. Ashley Romaniello, Marine Corps, 2013-Present
I was originally kicked out of the Marine Corps for being openly gay. I returned in 2013 after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed, and I redid recruit training all over again. I was part of the second class of women to graduate as an infantry rifleman. I choose to live and work in a very open and honest way, so I can pave the way for other L.G.B.T. service members. If I can protect even just one, I’ve done something meaningful.
I Remember the Feeling of Victory When I Made It Through the Day
Capt. Helen Perry, Army, 2011-16; Army Reserve, 2016-Present
I remember dropping my phone when they called to tell me that my husband, Matt, an active-duty Marine, had a seizure and his heart had stopped — the result of a traumatic brain injury he received in Afghanistan. I remember the first time I watched him seize and the color of his lips as they turned an ominous shade of blue. I held his hand, despite the fact that he couldn’t remember my name, or his name, or the year, or his family. The doctors told me his memory would come back (it never did). I remember the feeling of resentment as my senior leader advised me to get a divorce when I asked for a compassionate reassignment, so that I could get Matt to a hospital capable of taking care of him. I remember the frustration I felt as the Department of Veterans Affairs told me I didn’t qualify for the same benefits as civilian spouses do because I was active duty. I remember the feeling of desperation when I was so burned out and depressed that I didn’t think I could handle another day. I remember the feeling of victory when I made it through that day, and then the next, and all the hard days after that.
Learning to Be the First
Kimberly Ford, Air Force, 1990-2016
I was the first African-American woman to fly the C-17 Globemaster in the Air Force. I earned the Air Medal for support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. The biggest challenge I faced was being among the fewer than 1 percent of Air Force pilots who are African-American women. I had mentors from all walks of life throughout my career who have supported me and encouraged me, including Lt. Col. Bill Holloman, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American aviators from World War II.
We Had an Unbroken Bond After That Night
Staff Sgt. Nakita Goad, Marine Corps, 2010-Present
Sept. 14, 2012, will always be a day I remember because my base, Camp Bastion, was attacked and every Marine dropped their wrenches, grabbed their rifles and brought the fight to the enemy. I’ve never been more proud of those Marines than I was on that day. After that, it seemed as though we all had this unbroken bond that we would be able to talk about only with one another. It’s not much, but it’s something I won’t forget.
I Wish I Stayed In Longer
Susie Spriggs, Air Force, 1973-75
I was in the first wave of female aircraft mechanics to arrive at Fairchild Air Force Base. One of my biggest regrets in life is getting out so soon. I was only a mechanic for a year when they phased out the aircraft I was trained on, so I went into administration.
You’re Labeled a Liar
Kristi Anthony (Simonis), Marine Corps, 2010-14
I unfortunately didn’t accomplish much in the military. I was treated pretty terribly in my unit. Hazing and predation were prevalent. Being a woman in the military is basically signing a sexual assault/harassment contract. It will be constant. You will be mistreated, judged, harassed or assaulted because you have a vagina in a world full of penises. One “mistake” can take away years of work that you’ve put in. I say “mistake,” in quotation marks, because that “mistake” could be reporting sexual assault that actually happens. Then you’re labeled a snitch. The man who assaults you gets to brag about it, while you’re the liar.
I Designed the Marine Corps Reserve’s Centennial Campaign
Gunnery Sgt. Elizabeth Inglese, Marine Corps, 2000-12; Marine Corps Reserve, 2013-Present
I was the sole graphic designer for the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Marine Corps Reserve. My design work appeared across the United States, including in Times Square, in the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, at the Navy Memorial Museum in Washington, as a permanent exhibit installed at the Pentagon and as the official donation box design for the 2016 Toys for Tots campaign.
It Was My Duty to Do the Right Thing
Maj. Sharon Waddell, retired, Army, 1983-2003
At my first duty station, I was told that I shouldn’t be there and that I was taking a slot from a man who was trying to support his family. A wife once yelled at me not to sleep with her husband when we were in the field. I wanted to tell her not to worry — had she seen how disgusting her husband was when he was in the field? At times I had to thwart the advances of senior officers and others, while also fighting the perception that I was a lesbian. When I reported a commanding officer for sexually harassing a soldier in front of the entire company, I was removed from my job, while the offender received a letter of concern in his restricted file. I still felt it was my duty to do the right thing, no matter the consequences.
I Met My Spouse in Afghanistan
Col. Janet Holliday, retired, Army, 1998-2018
I enlisted in the Army in 1988 as a broadcast journalist and was commissioned as an officer in 1992. I served both in the Signal Corps and the Adjutant General Corps. I was the first female commander of the garrison at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania and the first female commander of the Army’s Marketing and Engagement Brigade at Fort Knox in Kentucky. In Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012, I met my future spouse, Col. Ginger Wallace of the Air Force. At the time of our marriage in 2015, we were the highest-ranking dual-military couple to enter into a same-sex marriage.
‘Women Don’t Belong in Combat’
Ashleigh Bryant Byrnes, Marine Corps, 2004-11
I was embedded with Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as a combat correspondent in August 2009. As we were about to head into a town to start patrolling and clearing compounds, a young lieutenant walked up to me and said, “You know, women don’t belong in combat.” I remember thinking: “Wow, what an awesome time to bring this up. How about we just all focus on doing our jobs?” I put it behind me and did what I was there to do, putting down my camera and picking up my rifle when the need arose.
I Was One of Six Female Bomb-Disposal Technicians in the Marines
Michelle Kuranishi, Marine Corps, 2000-12
I was one of six female bomb-disposal technicians in the Marine Corps. On my first deployment, I was pulled off my team because, as I was told, “Ramadi is too dangerous for a woman.” I was reassigned to Al Taqaddum, which didn’t turn out to be that much safer. The technician and corpsman on the team I was pulled off were killed in a blast. Then, about three weeks later, my own partner was killed. We’d been working on disarming a roadside bomb when it detonated and destroyed our robot. My partner went to disarm it, and a second blast killed him. Four days after that, our security team leader was killed. I completed that tour, devastated and traumatized, then returned a year later as a team leader myself. That deployment was blessedly uneventful.
The Job of a Deep-Sea Diver
Tenley Lozano, Coast Guard, 2009-14
I served in the Coast Guard for five years, first as a shipboard engineer and then as a deep-sea diver. My first unit conducted counternarcotic missions in the Eastern Pacific. I was the first American citizen to go onboard a Colombian narcotics submarine and evaluate its safety, because of my proven willingness to fit into tight and dangerous spaces. Standing in the entrance, I realized there was no way of seeing what was happening outside the sub once the watertight hatch above was sealed. I began to understand why the four men had locked themselves inside the vessel the night before, believing that the Coast Guard boarding team was actually a group of competing drug smugglers that had come to kill them. The boarding team would later remove one bale of cocaine from the narco-sub. The vessel was then sunk with most of the estimated six tons of cocaine onboard, so it wouldn’t be a hazard to navigation.
I Met My Husband in Guam
Suzanna York, Navy, 1996-2001
While I was in the Navy, my orders changed because the ship I had been assigned to had no female berthing. I instead was sent to a squadron on Guam, where I met my husband of 21 years.
Serving My Country Through Music
First Lt. Elizabeth Elliott, Army, 2016-Present
I grew up watching my sister, an Air Force pilot, constantly deploy to dangerous places. I wanted to do my part in serving my country, but I never knew how. I earned my bachelor’s and master’s in music performance and conducting, and I ended up being invited to audition in Washington and won the audition. I’m now the fifth female commissioned music officer in the Army.
I Took Off My Helmet So They Could See I Was a Girl Too
Lt. Kimberly Herm, Navy, 2009-Present
I was deployed to Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in 2012. As a civil engineer, my job was to oversee construction projects like schools, roads, bridges and canals. Sometimes we would visit the schools while classes were going on, and the girls would be scared and try to hide. When this happened, I would take off my helmet and sunglasses so they could see I was a girl too. Their reaction would immediately change, and they would all focus on my every move, looking away, laughing and blushing if I looked at them. I have always hoped that my presence there, as a female engineer trying to improve their schools, had a positive impact on these young girls.
Lauren Katzenberg is the editor of the The Times Magazine’s At War channel. For more stories about the experiences and costs of war, sign up for the weekly At War newsletter.