This Veterans Day lace up the boots, button the uniform, and look into the face of America’s brave protectors.
The face of woman.
It’s been less than a century since women were first allowed into the military, but since then the Historic Triangle has been home to a number of female veterans that have reflected on their time in service.
It was 21 years ago that First Sergeant Maria Caulford first joined the Army.
She was only 17 years old.
“The Army was the only positive thing I had, it was the only chance I had to make something of my life,” Caulford said.
But what she wasn’t prepared for at such a young age was learning how to survive in a heavily male-dominated environment. Today women represent 16 percent of Army and 20 years ago it was even fewer, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
“I went through so many different experiences where I had to teach myself to be a survivor,” she said. “I had to make sure no one would do something to me that I didn’t want them to.”
When Caulford was deployed to Afghanistan for the first war in Iraq for 15 months, she realized even more so the differences in experiences for men and women. For women, there are small struggles that civilians might not even consider, such as using the bathroom in the middle of a desert surrounded by a group of men.
Throughout the years, Caulford learned how to use her voice and stand up for herself and other women. After two decades, she said she is proud to see that women have more of an ability to protect themselves against sexualization and gender discrimination than she did.
“I think the evolution of sexuality and gender in the army has helped tremendously in the past decade, as a society we are understanding more but for a long time it wasn’t like that,” she said.
The doctor is in
Not every woman has the same experience in the military, though. For Elizabeth De Falcon, her time as a pediatrician in the Air Force didn’t place her directly in opposition to male roles, but rather taught her the struggle of work-life balance for a military woman.
De Falcon came from a military family, with brothers enlisted, a father as a Vietnam veteran and a grandfather as a World War II veteran.
Since she was a young girl she knew she wanted to be a pediatrician and going to medical school in the military not only provided her the opportunity to do just that, but also continue her family legacy of service.
In 1998, De Falcon started at Uniformed Services University, where she learned both traditional medical skills as well as those applicable to combat situations. During that time, she became a wife and mother and had to learn what it meant to take on those roles alongside being in the military.
“It’s tough because your life is not your own,” she said. “You’re on duty 24/7 and sometimes you have to choose priorities. But from the military’s perspective, your job is always first.”
At one point, De Falcon found herself taking care of two small children, working as a pediatrician for the military, buying a house, and taking care of daily life for her and her family while her then-husband was deployed.
As a result, she said it helped her to forge stronger relationships with other military women because they all had to form a tribe to make sure their families were taken care of.
“The parent that is left behind to do all of it, active duty or not, that’s a tough job,” she said. “You have to form a support system that you trust because these women are going to help you take care of your children.”
After 14 years of service, De Falcon said she has maintained some of her best friendships with women all over the world because of her time in the military.
“The women I met in these military communities are unforgettable,” she said. “It’s something from my time that I’ll always be grateful for.”
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in November 2018