SHIRLEY — Introducing a theme such as the evolutionary role of women in the military during a traditional Veterans Day ceremony might be unusual, but the ceremony held Thursday in Shirley did it seamlessly while keeping all the traditions in place.
The event at the War Memorial Building, sponsored by the local American Legion Post, was both a tribute to all U.S. veterans, past and present, and a thematic tribute to women in the military.
Both speakers were women as well as town residents.
Andre Jean Jacques is a Select Board member, while keynote speaker Kathleen Bradley is a U.S. Army veteran and government retiree whose overview of the role of women in the military over the years opened a window to the world she was once part of, a telling time capsule that led from another, less enlightened era in this country to the status women in the service have achieved today.
Jean Jacques spoke of the courage it takes to “answer the call” to defend the nation with honor and dedication and of the “long list” of Shirley residents who had done so. Some of them were lined up in rows in front of the stage, representing virtually every war era since World War II.
She also noted ties to nearby Fort Devens, which, even in the much-downsized version of the former U.S. Army base that exists there today, will forever be part of the town’s military legacy.
She sketched the history of Veterans Day, which began as Armistice Day, based on an act of Congress in 1938. The national holiday marked the signing of a peace treaty that ended World War I (1914-1918) on Nov. 11, at 11 a.m.
Another act in 1954 changed the name of the national holiday, Jean Jacques said, adding that President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the first Veterans Day speech.
“They fought to protect our country and our way of life,” she said of the veterans who fought in the nation’s wars and conflicts, some of whom gave their lives for the nation. “Today, many will gather around the country to honor them … we salute you, those who came before and those who serve now.”
“We must never forget” to live by those words as well as honor them, she said.
Bradley enlisted in the Army in 1961, “shortly after high school,” she said. She served until 1963, when she was honorably discharged to get married, as allowed then. Her husband, Lee Bradley, is a retired Army veteran.
Bradley continued her service to the nation as a government employee, retiring after 36 years with the U.S. Department of Defense. She and her husband have lived in Shirley since 1978, raised their four children here and now have several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“I salute all veterans … especially the women,” Bradley began. “Your dedication and courage define what our flag stands for today.”
They will never be forgotten “as long as there are legions,” she said.
Sketching her own journey, Bradley said that when she re-upped as a civilian government employee, her first assignment was to the weapons proving grounds in Arizona, where her first job was as a clerk typist.
“It was boring,” and offered no chance to advance, she said. So she volunteered for the weapons testing division and got in, beginning “with Howitzers,” she said.
Harking back to her time as an enlisted soldier, Bradley said her only deployment was in 1961, during the historic standoff now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her job was providing logistic and weapons support, she said. Women’s Army Corps members then were not allowed to have weapons, she said, which meant she couldn’t shoot the guns she prepared and maintained.
The WAC, formed in 1941 as a separate branch of the Army, continued until 1978, when it was disbanded and women were integrated into the regular Army.
Even though women were lauded as “immeasurably” valuable by Eisenhower and praised by WWII Gen. Douglas MacArthur as more proficient than their male counterparts in the field, female soldiers were still trained according to “male stereotypes,” Bradley said, adding that they got “nasty pushback” on the home front, eyed with suspicion and scorn by male soldier’s wives and girlfriends.
Such negative attitudes continued for years, she said. Women who joined the Army in her day had three choices: switchboard operators, armorers or bakers, the lowest category.
Things got better in the post-WAC years, when all units were integrated, here and overseas, Bradley said. But the transition wasn’t easy.
Her husband Lee, then a master sergeant at the former Fort Devens, went to work one day to find a group of women recruits assigned to him without warning, Bradley recalled. How would he house them in all-male barracks? Somehow, he got it done, she said, but it was tricky.
Today, over 16% of U.S. troops are women, and “they serve honorably,” Bradley said, her emotions surfacing but, without skipping a beat, she added that as of 2015, there are “no more restrictions” against women in combat.
Women, now, as well as men, experience the “unspeakable horrors of war,” she said.
“I am still proud and still saluting,” Bradley said. “God bless our armed forces and this great nation.”