Here's a look at just a few of these women who voluntarily put themselves in harm's way -- many suffering life-altering disabilities and illnesses or giving the ultimate sacrifice -- to protect our way of life.
Born a slave near Jefferson City, Missouri, Cathay Williams was the first known African American woman to serve in the United States Army—enlisting under the name "William Cathay" to hide the fact she was a woman.
"The regiment I joined wore the Zouave uniform and only two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman," Williams said, according to Army archives. "They were partly the cause of my joining the Army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends."
Documents show Williams served alongside the men in her unit—without being recognized as a woman—until she contracted smallpox and became ill. The disease caused her to be in and out of military hospitals until it was discovered she was female and immediately discharged.
World War II and Korean War
West Virginia native Ruby Bradley joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps as a surgical nurse in 1934. In 1941, she was taken captive by Japanese forces while serving in the Philippines. She and fellow imprisoned nurses continued to care for their fellow prisoners, earning them the nickname "angels in fatigues."
In February 1945, U.S. troops stormed the gates of the Japanese camp and liberated Bradley and her fellow prisoners, where she had been held captive for three years. Bradley continued serving in the Army Nurse Corps after her release and then in the Korean War. She dedicated 30 years to the military, becoming only the third woman in U.S. history to be promoted to the rank of colonel.
Persian Gulf War
Rhonda Cornum joined the U.S. Army in 1978. While serving as a flight surgeon with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq in 1991, her UH-60 Black Hawk was shot down by enemy forces when on a mission to rescue a downed fighter pilot. Cornum was one of three soldiers to survive the 140 mph crash. She suffered two broken arms, a bullet wound to her shoulder and knee damage, only to be dragged from the wreckage and taken into Iraqi captivity. On her way to confinement, she was sexually assaulted by one of her captors.
Cornum survived her eight-day captivity and was released back to the Army, where she recovered well enough to continue her military career. She retired with the rank of Brigadier General in 2012.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ashley White Stumpf was assigned to a National Guard unit from Goldsboro, NC, and served as a member of a cultural support team (CST) attached to a joint special operations task force in Afghanistan. As part of a CST, she took on a new role for women in the military, involving special units of female Army soldiers meant to build relationships with Afghan citizens. She was killed during combat operations in October 2011, when the assault force she was supporting triggered an improvised explosive device.
"This was 2011; the combat ban was still in place," said author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who wrote a book about Stumpf and the CSTs. "Most of America still doesn't know that these women were out there. So they knew that everything they did would be not just their mistake, but every female's mistake, and so I think they worked even harder."
As a women veteran, I'm inspired by the contributions these women have made. We owe them and others like them—such as U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Megan McClung, who became the highest-ranking female in any service and the first female Marine officer to be killed during the Iraq War—a world of gratitude. To learn more about women's veterans, visit www.dav.org/women-veterans. Together, we can ensure our women in uniform are remembered, and earn the recognition and support they need for their selfless valor.
Mary Dever is a veteran of the United States Air Force and currently serves as the Assistant National Communications Director for DAV (Disabled American Veterans). She resides in Maryland with her husband and young son.