Reflections of Dr Gloria Willingham While Attending the ‘Annual Veterans of The Year Awards Luncheon,” on June 25, 2014, Sacramento, California

As I sat there listening to the speakers and hearing the stories of other award winners, I felt a strange sense of deep gratitude.  It was as if I was experiencing a feeling of enlightenment as my mind begins to connect the interrelationships between those of us who have served our country in many ways, and at different times. I quickly scanned the room to see how many women veterans were in the mix and I saw a few, but only a few. 

And so I scanned my mind trying to find how I, a woman who entered the military so many years ago while simply trying to find something to do to occupy myself after a divorce, could be sitting here now as a “Veteran of The Year.” 

 How could I, a woman who had spent over twenty years combined service in the Army National Guard and the Army Reserves, be here as a “Veteran of The Year.” 

My thoughts moved backward in time to my childhood recollections of my grandfather who was paralyzed from an injury he sustained in world war one.  Jody Daddy, as we called him, spent the remainder of his life after that lying on a cot on the front porch during the day while my grandmother and other family members worked on the family farm. 

I thought of my favorite uncle BJ, my mother’s younger brother who went away to the Korean War and who returned in a mental state that only seemed to be relieved by his constant consumption of alcohol. 

I thought of my Uncle Frank who made a career in the army. I remembered how excited we were whenever he came home on furlough filled with stories of faraway places. It would be much later before he would  share with us stories of his life in the  racially segregated army and the transition to the integrated army.

I thought of all the young men, many still teenagers who were drafted into the military during the Viet Nam war. I thought of those who didn’t return and those who returned very different than when they left.  I thought of my own civilian naiveté about what these soldiers were encountering from the moment they entered the military. 

I recalled  my first job as a registered nurse working the night shift at a Catholic hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was there that I first met a woman in the military.  She was  an active duty Air Force nurse who was stationed at the nearby Little Rock Air Force base. She was pregnant, and she was not married. She said she was being discharged from the air force due to this situation. I never knew the outcome of what happened to her.  I often wonder how many women who became pregnant while in the military during those years were forcibly discharged. I wondered about the conditions under which they became pregnant and how many of the men who fathered these children were also forcibly discharged.  

I recalled leaving that Catholic hospital and starting to work at a VA hospital.  My patients were all veterans and all men.  There seemed to be a real camaraderie among them. Most were much older than I was… Many of the employees at the hospital were veterans and the relationship between the patients and the employees was often one of friendship.  

I remember that the only place that I saw female vets was on the psychiatric wards.  These women vets were being cared for primarily by males most of whom were also vets.  Whispers about the need to watching the women and to make frequent rounds especially on the night shift to make sure they were not subjected to rape. I knew that it was important to assure frequent rounds when there was a female patient on the ward. 

 Looking back I realize that these women had no other females vets to talk with and were not fully accepted by the male vets. Conversations about them were almost always in the context of what they looked like, never in the context of what they too  had experienced as a woman soldier and as a veteran. They had to adjust to a system that was set up to accommodate men, not women. They had very few advocates in the VA system at the time.

I would later get firsthand experience as a young Department of Defense (DOD) civilian nurse in an Army Hospital on a neuro ward caring for soldiers who had been air evacuated back to the United States after sustaining combat wounds. Those wounds were very different than anything that I had ever witnessed during my years of nurse training and working at the VA Hospital.  I was still in my twenties, and it was near the end of the Viet Nam War, a war which I knew very little about at the time although I was heavily invested in caring for its wounded. 

 I recall crying every night as we quickly triaged the arriving wounded. I remember hearing their stories which they shared on the night shift. Their stories were seldom about their experiences on the battle ground but most often about their fear of what would happen to them when they returned home. How would their girlfriends or wives or friends or families receive them when they saw them again?  Those wards at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC), Beach Pavilion were filled with laughter from young men often followed by silent tears from those same young men as they dealt with life at a young age.  They formed a camaraderie that was beyond what I had experienced in any other setting. Soldiers talked with and listened to other soldiers. Families and friends visited, but the world as they knew it was often very different than the world that these soldiers had just experienced. The soldiers were placed in a position where they were expected to adjust or re-adjust quickly to the civilian world - and would leave BAMC and return to a world in which they were expected to act as if nothing had changed in their lives. There were phrases such as “shell shock” or “that boy’s been to the war and his head is not quite right” that were often heard in the civilian world to explain what would later be described as “flashbacks” and then Post Traumatic Stress Disorders(PTSD) and acknowledged as service-connected.  The victims of Agent Orange, ALS victims, alcoholism drug addiction, etc would rise to the level of treatment in the VA.   

I recall the many farewell parties when I worked at BAMC, often lasting so long until work hours ran into party hours.  Those of us who were DOD civilian nurses were often invited.  One by one we watched soldiers receiving orders to Viet Nam and other areas. I remember the silent tears rising up within me as we said our goodbyes because I always wondered if and how they would return to us. Yet there were no tears during the parties instead there was an almost euphoric sense of celebration and camaraderie. I do not have the words to describe it in a way that those who were not there could understand it. These were young men and a few young women, the age of my grandkids now, at a time of war in which we lost generations.  

Little did I know that the experiences as a civilian working in a military and veteran environment would change my life forever. Little did I know that I was at the beginning of a career that would forever connect me with the military and with our nation’s veterans. … but it happened.  

After going through a difficult divorce and finding myself alone with three young children to support, I walked into a local recruitment center and signed up to become a member of the Army National Guard. It just seemed to be the natural thing to do.  It was a way of expanding what I had learned as a DOD civilian, and in the VA. This was my opportunity to now become a part of the military.  I received a direct commission as a 1st Lieutenant and quickly progressed to Captain during my first two years.

Readiness command had acknowledged an increased need for medical corpsman to work in the field, and I was already assigned to the 148th Evacuation Hospital Unit… an excellent group. The unit was selected to teach the 91B medical corpsman program completely and I was selected as one of the leaders.  This was the first time the course had been taught fully in a National Guard or Reserve unit.  The program was successfully implemented and the model was transported to other units.   Having such a program available in a reserve component unit increased the numbers of trained medical corpsmen ready for deployment in times of war. I learned more about the military and the importance of the nurse corps as a part of my active duty for training in places such as Fort Leonard wood, Missouri; Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center; Fort Bliss, Texas;  and back to Fort Sam Houston, Texas where I had worked years previously as a  DOD civilian.  As a nurse corps officer I had many female officers with me in the same command.  It would be years later before I would realize that this was not the experience of most women in the military.

I recalled later leaving the National Guard and becoming a member of the 349th General Hospital in Los Angeles, CA - A large US Army Reserve Unit.  Building on my earlier experiences I quickly assimilated into the unit and became a recognized leader among leaders. Increasingly the nation’s military strength was in the reserve components and reserve training units became very important.  Our nation’s fighting force must be in top physical shape and wounded soldiers must be treated promptly and effectively.  The emphasis was always on ‘go to war’ readiness, and knowing how to treat our nation’s wounded in times of war was very important. That was our mission.  We took pride in the training programs and in our soldiers. Many soldiers in the National Guard and reserves were already vets with strong military backgrounds.

My final military assignment before retirement was with the 6222nd US Army Reserve School in Pasadena, California (5th Brigade, 104th Division IT).   I was recruited into this distinguished school just as our nation was entering the war in the gulf. There was an escalated need for persons trained in medical and nursing courses.  The school was tasked with producing those soldiers.  I had progressed to the rank of Lt. Colonel by then and became the Director, Medical Courses, and the Director, 91C (licensed vocational nurse) program.  We produced soldiers well-trained to function in a combat medical environment and in a civilian environment. Their skills were used during the gulf war and many of them are now veterans themselves.

I am now a military veteran, one who has served one’s country honorably. I consider myself indebted to my country in many ways and indebted to those who have served this great country and are also now vets. I feel indebted to those who made the ultimate sacrifice and to their families. It is that indebtedness that led me to complete a parallel career working in the US Department of Veterans Affairs until I retired as The Chief, Nursing Education and Research at the VA Desert Pacific Health Care System in Long Beach. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve veterans across a lifetime and now to be a veteran myself.  As one veteran I am not worthy of this distinguished award for so many have given so much more and have lost so much more than I have. 

And so, I sat there not only as Lt. Colonel Gloria Willingham, US Army Retired… but as a composite of many military and related civilian life experiences of myself and others who give of themselves to this great nation. I didn’t know when to stand or when to sit. When you are in the military for over 20 years you go through a lot of eras and it’s hard to decide where to self-identify.  

I applaud all the other veterans in the 58th Assembly District.  I applaud their families and all who have supported their work.  Every veteran has a different story based on their military experiences and the backdrop against which those experiences occurred.  Some of those experiences are easy to listen to while others can only be understood by persons who have experienced the combat environment first hand.  Veterans are a diverse group who has different levels of support needs. Some are homeless, suffering from PTSD, physically and mentally impaired, etc while others return with less trauma simple because of the nature of their experiences.  We all stand as a united team with a shared history - often unspoken and unheard.

I humbly accept this honor as the "Veteran of the Year in the 58th Assembly District” not for myself but rather in honor of all the many veterans in the 58th Assembly District.  We are all in this together. Yes, I feel a strange sense of deep gratitude!

Thank you Assembly Member Cristina Garcia for recognizing the importance of Veterans in your district.