Fort McCoy News April 11, 2014

Community gathers to salute Women's History

88th Regional Support Command

FORT MCCOY, Wis. — Women faithfully have served in the military since our nation's inception, but complete equality and acceptance within the ranks has been an ongoing effort with many important milestones.

Photo for Women's History month article
Drill Sergeant Hickman (left) and two members of the 88th Army
Reserve Command's first all-female platoon stand on the Fort Snelling,
Minn., parade ground after their homecoming ceremony from basic
training, August 1974.
File photo

According to Retired Army Reserve Maj. John A. Perry, one such milestone in establishing gender equality within the Army Reserve was a groundbreaking initiative by the then-88th Army Reserve Command (ARCOM) in 1974. It was then that a platoon of 30 female recruits was assembled to give visibility and help foster acceptance, incorporation and respect for the new wave of female warrior-citizens joining the ranks.

Perry, who served on the staff of the 88th's commander at the time, spoke in detail of the era and program to a crowd of Soldiers and civilians during a special Women's History Month presentation here March 27.

Maj. Gen. Karen LeDoux, current commander of the 88th Regional Support Command, who attended the event, said observances like these are very important.

"It gives an opportunity to remember and reflect on just how much has changed within our Army and our within our society," said LeDoux, "and appreciate how far we have come and how much our society has grown."

One of those seminal changes was establishing women's full and equal role within the Army.

"The multi-faceted quandary of women in the U.S. Army posed multiple challenges for a historically male-dominated force," said Perry.

During that time period, the vast majority of female Soldiers still were not part of the regular Army, but rather members of the Women's Army Corps, a separate branch of the Army commonly known as the WAC. The WAC was established in 1942 and gradually was phased out in the 1970s. It officially was disbanded in 1978.

Photo for Women's History month article
Retired Army Reserve Maj. John A. Perry shows documents to Maj.
Gen. Karen LeDoux, commander of the 88th Regional Support

"This left the leadership of the time to figure out how to smartly assimilate female Soldiers into standard Army units," said Perry.

"This process had already begun in the Army Reserve, as in 1973, there were already 56 WACs in the 88th's subordinate units."

The Army Reserve simultaneously faced several additional challenges, to include the end of the draft, withdrawal from Vietnam and negative public attitudes toward military service.

"All these factors resulted in dangerously low Army Reserve unit strength, which made recruiting the prime mission of all USAR units nationwide," said Perry. "The full incorporation of female Soldiers became a clear course of action."

To assist in recruiting military occupation specialty-qualified females for currently vacant positions in Army Reserve units, the Civilian Acquired Skills (CAS) program was created.

Under the CAS program, a qualified female could be enlisted as a private first class for an existing vacancy. Female recruits then would complete a special two-week basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala. After their return and six months of additional administrative training at their own duty station, the new Soldier then could be promoted to the rank assigned to the position she was enlisted for without further requirements.

"Thus, it was possible for many new female enlistees to become E-5 sergeants in less than seven months service in the Army," said Perry. "Needless to say this did not set too well with many old Soldiers, but nonetheless, the CAS program was working."

To help accelerate the program, the 88th developed a plan that included recruiting their own complete platoon of female enlistees, and sending them off to complete basic training together as a unit with all ceremonial honors.

"This was to be a distinctive — a first in the nation — basic training unit from one command," said Perry.

The 88th held a departure ceremony at its headquarters on Fort Snelling, Minn., to give full honor and proper send-off to the platoon of 30 female recruits, said Perry. Attendees included Family and friends of the enlistees, as well as current female Soldiers and media.

A WAC drill sergeant was selected from Fort McClellan, where they would conduct their single-sex basic training. Drill Sergeant Hickman, first name unknown, joined the ceremony to take charge of the platoon, transport them to their training and personally facilitate their development.

"Assembled in a wide variety of then-current girl informal wear, the recruits milled about, sipping refreshments and talking and giggling, holding hands with boyfriends and voicing a multitude of questions to anyone in uniform," said Perry.

The platoon then was formed up in front of Maj. Gen. Merrill B. Evans, commander of the 88th ARCOM.

Perry recalled, "The group gathered as the McClellan drill sergeant, the distinctive WAC drill sergeant field hat sharply atilt on her head, faced the commanding general, standing at rigid attention. 'Drill sergeant,' said General Evans, 'here are a bunch of recruits. Bring me back a platoon of Soldiers.'

'Yes sir,' the drill sergeant replied, as she rendered a salute. After the salute was returned, she directed 'her' new platoon on board the GI bus and away they went."

While at their condensed basic training, the recruits underwent field training and learned military skills, such as drill and ceremony, chemical-biological-radiological training, combat marches and weapons familiarization.

Upon completion of the platoon's basic training, a large reception was held for their homecoming.

The platoon arrived back to Fort Snelling in the same olive drab bus to a large crowd of assembled guests, 88th units, honor guard and the 451st Army Band.

"They were as sharp a group of Soldiers as I have ever seen. Around the parade ground they marched, to the cheers of the assembled throng. Television cameras rolled and still cameras flashed. It was a proud sight indeed," said Perry.

Following the band and the color guard, the platoon marched across the parade field to the awaiting crowd.

"The drill sergeant halted the platoon in front of the general and his staff, executed a left face and the drill sergeant posted herself in front of the files of the platoon," said Perry. "Marching a few steps forward, the sergeant saluted Evans, saying 'Here is your platoon of Soldiers, as you ordered.'"

According to Perry, the command recruiting program took a decided upswing, especially on the female side. The number of female Soldiers in the command, including subordinate units, increased from 56 in 1971 to 1,048 by the end of July 1975. The CAS program, with the all-female 88th's Platoon, was deemed the major reason for the stellar growth and adopted by other Army Reserve Commands.

LeDoux said past initiatives like these and the people who took advantage of them have blazed the trail for us to follow and surpass.

"All of us, regardless of our gender, stand on the backs of giants," said LeDoux. "Each and every one of us are where we are today because of those who went before us. Their efforts and work are what made what we do possible."