100 years later, women vets still struggle to be recognized
Manchester — Julia Lempeck (née Ganos) was 26 when she became one of 350,000 American women to serve in the military during World War II.
Lempeck, a native of Starford, Pa., entered the Women's Army Corps in 1944 at the height of war "because I loved my country and I believed in protecting it," the 101-year-old New Britain resident said Thursday at an event marking the 100th anniversary of enlisted women serving in the military.
While women have served since the American Revolution, it wasn't until World War I that they officially wore the uniform. Thursday's event for veterans, hosted by the Manchester Elks Lodge and Johnson Brunetti Retirement & Investment Specialists, recognized Lempeck and women who've served in the major conflicts since.
Lempeck served stateside for 20 months as a clerk typist, handling the service records of soldiers going overseas in addition to other administrative work. She said Thursday she faced "no problems" as a woman serving in the military but the Army and public did not immediately accept the concept. She was honorably discharged in July 1946, earning the American Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal and Good Conduct Medal.
The opportunities for women in the military have evolved greatly over the past 100 years — now all jobs, including combat positions, are open to them — but barriers to gender equality remain.
Lt. Col. Lesbia Nieves of the Connecticut National Guard told attendees, mostly veterans, Thursday that, when she recently was wearing her hat denoting her service during Operation Iraqi Freedom, a man asked her if her husband served. She expressed her frustration to the crowd, saying she told the man, "I earned this hat."
Judy McAuley, 70, of South Windsor, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War era, said she joined the military at a time when it wasn't looked upon as a positive thing for women to do. The perception was that you didn't have any direction, she said.
"It wasn't a positive thing. Not like today. It's much more accepted today," she said.
McAuley, who grew up in foster care, joined the Army at age 18, working stateside in communications from 1968 to 1970. She said it took a while for her to recognize herself as a veteran and she didn't speak much about her military service until recently.
Tammy Salminen, 48, of Rockville only intended to serve for four years in the military. Instead, "I stayed for 20," she said.
Salminen said she wasn't well behaved or a good student growing up, so she joined the military to get her life on track. It was good leadership that helped her develop and inspired her to stay in the Navy from 1989 to 2009, she said.
She recalled bringing her son, when he was 11 months old, to live with her mom and stepdad while she deployed on a submarine tender in the Western Pacific, during which she went to places she never heard of before: Hong Kong, Singapore, Bahrain, Guam.
Communication wasn't what it is today, so her mom would record videos of her son on tape cassettes and send them to her, and she would record videos of herself and send them back.
Even today, Salminen said she loves to wear her uniforms, especially when talking to local students about the military for Veterans Day and other events. On those occasions, she said she makes a point of highlighting the history of women in the military, and the career opportunities women have in the military today.
However, Salminen said she struggles to be recognized by others as a veteran. She is commander of Chapter 17 of Disabled American Veterans, and said on one occasion when she and male members of the group were dressed in their DAV hats and jackets, a man approached them and thanked the men for their service but not her. She was hurt and figured because she was a woman, the man assumed she wasn't a veteran. A short while later, he stopped his car, got out, apologized to her and thanked her for her service, which she said she appreciated.
"It's been a long learning process," she said. "It's going to take time."
Regina Rush-Kittle, 57, of Rocky Hill said she was one of the first female Marines to wear the same camouflage uniform as men.
"It's little strides like that got us closer to being fully accepted in military," she said.
Rush-Kittle served in the Marine Reserves for three years, and 27 years in the Army Reserve, during which she deployed twice, first to Kuwait then Afghanistan. During the deployment to Afghanistan, she was the senior enlisted personnel in a military intelligence battalion of 275-plus soldiers and officers.
Rush-Kittle said she always had a drive to serve and while a student at the University of Connecticut, she learned she could serve her country and have another career by enlisting in the reserves. She worked for the Connecticut State Police for 28 years and reportedly is the highest-ranking African-American woman ever to serve in the Connecticut State Police.
She is a 2017 inductee into the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame, and was inducted in the same class as Capt. Kristin Griest, the Army's first female infantry officer, and Col. Ruth Lucas, the first African-American woman to achieve the rank of colonel in the Air Force.