There are more than 2 million women veterans living in the United States, and women have made major strides in the military since they first started serving their country in early wars disguised as men.
March is Women’s History Month, and it celebrates the achievements of women in society, such as those who have served their country in the military. Women made up 17.3% of the active-duty force in 2021 with 231,741 members, according to the 2021 Demographics Profile of the Military Community released by the Department of Defense. That’s up from 229,933 in 2020 and from 210,336 in 2017. And the number of women in the military continues to steadily rise each year, according to the Department of Defense.
One in every six residents in The Villages has served in the military, and, of those, 320 are women who have served their country since World War II. Many of the women veterans who call The Villages home have stories of their achievements and challenges.
“It was a matter of opening doors, breaking down barriers,” said Jan Lathouwers, a U.S. Army veteran. “(There’s) the old adage that you couldn’t just be good you had to be better than the best just to be equal. But we did it.”
The Village of Polo Ridge resident joined the U.S. Army with three of her college friends in 1969 after hearing a presentation from a recruiter.
She went on to serve 20 years in the military, where she was a commander of several units and trained the next generation of soldiers.
Her first assignment during the integration was with the 3rd Infantry Division in Herzberg, Germany. She remembers the men were very vocal about not wanting women to serve alongside them, and she said they would do anything to drive women out.
When she first arrived, there were only three or four women officers and a handful of non-commissioned officers. When she retired in 1989, there were more than 1,500, and the U.S. Army wanted more.
“I was very fortunate,” Lathouwers said. “For the most part, I trained troops and had multiple commands. In 1977 and 1978, we joined the integrated Army, the men’s Army — that was a challenging time for all of us because, for the most part, men didn’t want us in their Army.”
Although she and other women weren’t in combat roles at the time, she learned how to have a good relationship and earn the respect of the men she commanded.
She knew they didn’t have to like her, but they still had to respect her. •Kim Scott, of the Village of DeLuna, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1997 to 2007 after seeing her older brother serve in the U.S. Army.
Scott was one of only four speech pathologists at the time. She treated people with head and neck injuries who were dealing with speech problems.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to serve your country,” she said.
There were many other women in the military’s medical field, so she never felt singled out.
And her time in the military helped her advance her education and rank. She received her Ph.D. in communication sciences from the University of Florida in 1999, which led to her assignment at the Air Force Research Laboratory Bioacoustics Branch at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Scott also had assignments in Estonia, New Mexico and Texas.
A moment from her career that stands out to her is when she treated an injured soldier whose one request was a Gatorade.
“With his mouth wired shut, he said, ‘Speech pathology rocks,’” Scott said. “That was one of the most rewarding moments.”
Betsy Nolan joined the U.S. Navy after encouragement from her brother after college.
She practiced pharmacy in the U.S. Navy and credits mentorship and leadership opportunities for her rising success and rank in the military.
“The Navy gave opportunities for leadership because you went in as an officer and your performance as a leader helps you to progress in the ranks,” the Village of Bonita resident said. “I got to practice my trade and that’s what excited me. As I got more senior, I was able to expand my outreach as a leader in the academic world, the management world then as a manager of all the pharmacy services.”
When she first joined in 1979, the Navy didn’t know what to do with her. She was one of only five women in her class of about 180. As she progressed in her career, the number of women and opportunities for them grew.
Nolan also learned to work within the culture and see how she fit into the bigger picture. She even became well known within the pharmacy industry.
The more senior she became the more she was able to pass on her experiences and knowledge to others to help them succeed, too.
“I was flattered because it’s a man’s world, and there’s a lot of competition,” she said.
In 1974, Amy Fisher-Evans enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard to play the oboe in its concert band. But after nine months of boot camp, the spot was filled, and she pivoted to business school at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
She was part of one of the first women classes at the academy and later received an appointment as an engineer. She said it was tough for women at the time. The Coast Guard didn’t even have uniforms for women yet, so they had to wear the men’s.
“I was very much a feminist, so it didn’t even really bother me,” said the Village of Hammock at Fenney resident.
After five years, she left the military and married her husband, who also was in U.S. Coast Guard. She spent the next 20 years as an officer’s wife and had her own duties as they traveled the world.
Today, she feels humbled to part of the Tri-County Women Veterans because of all the other amazing women in the group.
Fisher-Evans said she had an amazing experience in the military and encourages other women to pursue the career.
“If you’re going to go in, don’t be caught up by the glamour of it all,” she said. “Have a goal and keep to it, and you’ll go a long way.”
Barbara Kyle enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at 19 years old and served from 1961 to 1965. Her cousin and brother both served, and a recruiting officer made it sound very appealing.
For most of her career, she worked in Washington, D.C., as a correspondent. She said she was mostly shown respect, but one moment from her time in boot camp stands out.
“They told us that we were ladies first and marines second,” the Village Mira Mesa resident said. “It just stuck with you.”
She mostly handled paperwork, but she and other women would have been taken over men’s jobs if the Cold War escalated.
In the end, the military wasn’t for her and she wanted to be home with her family. But she still encourages women to serve their country if they’re interested in the military.
For Kyle and the other women veterans, there was no greater bond than with those who served together, and having a group like the Tri-County Women Veterans that allows them women to keep that alive and enhance the pride they have for their country is so important.
“I do love this country, and that’s why I want to give back and do the best I can,” she said.
Senior Writer Veronica Wernicke can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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