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Women veterans' service honored

October 11, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

Growing up the daughter of Quaker parents in rural Big Pool, Janie Fox never heard a swear word - until she joined the army.

At age 20, she found herself in a phone booth at the Atlanta airport the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It seemed like the city was burning down around her.

"It was quite a very scary thing for this little girl," said Fox, 50, of Hedgesville, W.Va., who remembers being whisked to safety by a tall, black soldier.

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It was an experience she wouldn't trade for the world.

Tri-State area women said joining the service gave them a chance to see new places, meet new people and learn new trades.

At the same time, the women say, they have been underappreciated for their role in military history.

Women's contributions are being recognized - finally, some would say - in a $6 million memorial being dedicated Saturday, Oct. 18 at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery.

There are about 90,000 women veterans in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, according to the nonprofit Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.

"Everybody else was honored, why shouldn't we be honored, too? We were important. We filled men's jobs so men could go over and fight," said M. Maxine Kessler of Chambersburg, Pa.

During her four-year stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Kessler worked stateside, ordering parts and doing paperwork.

"It was just like any other job, but we had to wear a uniform," said Kessler, 73, who joined the military to get closer to her sweetheart, Louis Clark.

Tragically, Clark never came back from Okinawa. But Kessler finished her time, in part as a memorial to him, she said.

Violet B. McDonald decided to join the Women's Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service in 1943 after her older brother left the service under a medical discharge.

She was the first women from her small New Hampshire town to join the service, she said.

Things got tense during her training at Hunter College in New York when there was an actual air raid - not just a drill - in the middle of the night.

"You weren't really too scared - until afterward," she said.

McDonald, 74, was a mate in the barracks and became a "master at arms" in two mess halls, jobs that required her to keep 200 sailors in line.

After the service, she counted money as it came off the presses at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C.

She married a military man and had six children, five of whom are still living.

"It was easier than being in the military," said the 50-year member of the American Legion.

Earlier this week, in honor of the upcoming memorial, four women veterans who live in the area got together and swapped "war stories."

When Fox joined the Women's Army Corps, she started out as the only woman in a specialized electronics program. Not enjoying being in the minority, Fox was only too glad to switch to administrative duties when the opportunity arose.

Later, she became a nurse.

Fox was forced to leave the service after one year, when she got pregnant. In those days, it didn't matter that she was married.

"Then, it wasn't fair at all. There wasn't even a pretense of trying to be equal," said Lonna Gutwalt, 38, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

Gutwalt enlisted in 1976 and learned tactical communications. For awhile, she was stationed in Germany.

"I didn't join the Army to be in an office," she said.

Pam Mann, 39, worked at Andrews Air Force Base, fixing P-3 airplanes.

"I would have liked to go further, but it was a real man's place and they didn't like women in there," said Mann, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

Mann was recently divorced when joined the Army in 1982. Her three daughters were in the custody of her ex-husband.

"I wanted them to see women can do something with their lives," Mann said.

It wasn't easy. Her eyes look puffy in her basic training photo because the drill instructor had just finished yelling at her class.

"I felt like they were picking on me. I'm sure everyone felt that way," she said.

Mann served three years in the Army and then went into the U.S. Navy reserves, where she is still on inactive duty.

Training was difficult, the women said.

Fox had a problem with the 32-inch marching step. Standing 4 feet 11 3/4 inches tall, her inseam is only 24 inches.

Then there were the uniforms.

"I hated it. It really did look like the Jolly Green Giant threw up," Fox said of one lime green uniform.

While the men wore camouflage, the women wore skirts that had to be ironed stiff enough to stand by themselves to pass inspection, Fox said.

The women's memorial is a special thrill for Mann, who helped raise money for the women's memorial by speaking at local clubs.

"I still think men don't see women as being a real part of the military," she said.

More than 90 percent of all career fields in the armed forces are now open to women.

During World War II, 88 women, all nurses, were held as Prisoners of War, said the memorial foundation.

"It's time that a little pat on the back be given to the women," Fox said.

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