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Women served US armed forces since Revolutionary days, but combat ban wasn't lifted until 2013

1948's Women's Armed Services Integration Act was a key first step for women working toward equality in the U.S. armed forces.
During the war effort, U.S. Army women salute as they fashion the official uniforms of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS) for the first time in Washington, D.C. on May 22, 1942. From left to right are: Gloria Pickett, wearing an officer's winter uniform; Bette Jane Greer, wearing an officer's summer uniform; and Inga Rundvold, wearing the uniform of an auxiliary corresponding to the rank of a private in the regular army. (AP Photo)

The United States has been commemorating Veterans Day for more than 80 years.

But, some members of our armed forces weren't recognized, honored or even considered veterans until after World War II.

Research done by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shows women have served in war throughout American history. Even during the Revolutionary War, the VA said it was not uncommon for women to follow a male loved one into battle, tending to the injured, cooking and cleaning and mending uniforms.

Margaret Corbin became a hero of the American Revolution when she, dressed as a man, fought alongside her husband at the Battle of Fort Washington. She quickly took over firing the cannon at British soldiers when he was killed. According to Dr. Debra Michals at the National Women's History Museum, Corbin was the first American woman to receive a pension from the military.

Then, during the Civil War, research shows at least 400 women served on both sides of the conflict. Senior Archivist for Military Records at the National Archives, DeAnne Blanton, co-wrote the book "They Fought Like Demons" in 2003, detailing how women disguised themselves and assumed male names to fight for the Union or Confederacy.

Blanton explained that both the Union and Confederacy forbade women from enlisting, and later on in the early 1900s the U.S. Army tried to deny that women played a military role at all in the Civil War. Because of their disguises, it's impossible to know the exact number of women soldiers served during this time, Blanton wrote.

During the Spanish-American War in 1901, the nursing corps became institutionalized as an auxiliary of the Army, which is considered the act of Congress establishing women as a formal part of the military. The Navy followed in 1908, and by the end of World War I about 34,000 women served as nurses in the armed forces.

Still, women serving in the armed forces did not get benefits or a military rank.

During World War II there came an unprecedented need for military personnel. By the end of the war, the VA says nearly 350,000 women had served.

World War II is also when women were first given military status through the Women's Army Corps, established by Congress in 1943. With this, women could achieve military rank and serve overseas.

After the war, many military leaders and Congress felt there should be a major reduction in the number of women in the armed forces. And, women were often discriminated against by potential employers after leaving the service.

President Harry Truman in 1948 signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which made women permanent members of the regular and reserve forces of the Army, Navy, Marines and the new Air Force. That same year, Truman's Executive Order 9981 ended racial segregation in the military.

However, discrimination against women continued in the armed forces through the Korean and Vietnam wars. During the Vietnam Conflict, the Department of Defense pushed back against expanding roles for women and instead authorized the enlistment of nearly 300,000 men with low aptitude. 

Then, the 1970s saw women finally being allowed to rise to command roles and train alongside men. In 1970, Brigadier General Anna Mae Hays became the first woman to attain star rank in nursing.

While women continued to serve in all branches of the armed forces throughout the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st century, it wasn't until 2013 that the DOD lifted the official ban on women in combat. 

The decision by then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta overturned a 1994 Pentagon rule that restricted women from front-line combat roles in artillery, armor, infantry and the like. At the time, the New York Times reported that hundreds of thousands of women had already served in combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a 2018 report, the Department of Defense said women make up nearly 18 percent of the total defense force with more than 375,000 women serving. 

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