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Women's History Month: the right to fight

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- What would it be like to be a patriotic American and denied the opportunity to serve in the U.S. military at times of war? And what would it be like to have served honorably in a military capacity, suffer injuries under hostile enemy fire or even lose your life, and not even be recognized as a veteran?

In May of 1782, a 22 year-old youngster by the name of Robert Shurtliff enlisted in the Continental Army. The soldier's real identity was Deborah Sampson, the oldest daughter in a family of seven children. Disguised as a man, she was chosen for the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. Sampson went on to serve one and a half years and fought in six skirmishes. After taking two musket balls in the thigh, she had to escape from the hospital before doctors could treat it so as to avoid discovery of her true gender. She successfully removed only one of them herself and the injury never healed correctly.

By the end of the war, her true identify was known. Despite knowing she was a woman who enlisted illegally, General George Washington gave her an honorable discharge at West Point. Ten years after the war, Sampson filed multiple petitions for the veteran's pension that she was denied due to her gender. She eventually won and is recognized today as the Official Heroine of the State of Massachusetts.

Sampson was the first female soldier in the Revolutionary War and one can argue she was a pioneer in the fight for women's equality in the U.S. military. Unlike the Revolution, the latter battle continued into the twentieth century. In the early 1940s, the U.S. Army faced a shortage of pilots. Thousands of new airplanes were coming off assembly lines and needed to be delivered to military bases nationwide, yet most of America's pilots were in combat overseas. To deal with the backlog, the government launched an experimental program to train women pilots to fly military aircraft.

Starting in 1942, over a thousand women who were already licensed pilots were trained to carry out military missions. They were known as the Women Air force Service Pilots (WASPs). By 1944, WASP fliers not only delivered more than 12,000 planes from factories to their respective bases, but also tested new planes, trained male pilots, and towed targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice. Thirty-eight women pilots died while serving in the program. Because they were not given military status, their bodies were returned home without traditional military honors. The WASPs were finally recognized as military pilots in 1977 when Congress declared them as WWII veterans.

Today, women account for 19 percent of our total force in 99 percent of career fields. As we celebrate Women's History Month, I challenge fellow Americans to take a deeper look into our history, reflect upon the contributions women made to our country and obtain a better appreciation for those who paved the road for the women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in the 21st century.