SHERIDAN — Newsstands and coffeehouses have been aflutter recently as nearly everyone is talking about 1st Lt. Kristen Griest and Capt. Shaye Haver, the first two women in history to graduate from the U.S. Army’s elite Ranger School.
While the nation lauded their accomplishments, many simultaneously asked questions which have not likely been asked of any male Ranger before: Were the standards lowered for these graduates? How will they be used now? What do their haircuts look like?
Women have been part of the military since the Revolutionary War and, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, women currently make up 8 percent of the veteran population with an expected increase to 15 percent by the year 2035.
Regardless, questions continue to surround women in service as the nation works to define what military personnel should look like.
U.S. Air Force Vietnam veteran Joanna Briggs said these types of questions are not reserved for groundbreakers and Rangers; she’s been asked them ever since she enlisted in 1970.
“Sometimes in service organizations in town I would be told, ‘This place is for veterans, not spouses.’ And I would have to say ‘Well I am a veteran,’” Briggs said. “And then I would be told, ‘Well you don’t look like (a veteran),’ and I’d say, ‘Well tell me what one looks like. Is it the lipstick that is bothering you? The hairspray? What seems to bother you?’”
Briggs earned her veteran status and her 1st lieutenant ranking after volunteering to serve as a nurse during the Vietnam War.
“I was working in a small rural community which was a very conscientious objector area doing some part-time work at the community hospital,” Briggs said of her decision to enlist. “I was seeing kids I went to school with coming back maimed or not coming back at all and yet these (conscientious objectors) seemed to go on with life as they knew it, working their jobs and spending time with their family, because they refused to serve and it bothered me; it bothered me a lot. Some of these kids had no choice in being drafted, but yet they all enjoyed the same freedoms, so I enlisted.”
After basic training, Briggs was stationed at the hospital on Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Busy with 10,000 active military personnel, their dependents and even caring for a local Indian tribe and urgent cases from other branches of the military, 14 nurses worked hard to care for every patient who came through that hospital.
“We were a close group; we pretty much took care of each other,” Briggs said. “On holidays, almost nobody got leave so we were all together for family times and we became a family in that way for two years.”
But for some, her dedication and high rank through rapid promotions and a direct commission from Congress to enlist as an officer were not enough to treat her like a soldier.
“Senior officers did not have much use for us,” Briggs said. “Females in the military were treated as you need to be home in the kitchen raising families. They would try to tell us to leave the Officers Club though we all belonged just like they did
“But when people would come into the hospital and they would want to pull rank or something on you we would tell them ‘There is no rank on those pajamas. Get back in bed,’” she added.
Briggs loved what she did and enjoyed the military life. Being one who always thrived in structure and discipline, she enjoyed emergency medicine and learning from world class physicians on the best equipment. Her training and passion lead to a life of caring for veterans, working as a nurse for 43 years total, over half of which were dedicated to servicemen and women.
“I saw post-traumatic stress disorder, but they called it shell shock back then,” Briggs said. “The veterans struggled and usually went to drinking and those kind of destructive behaviors. And when I got out of the military, I went to the VA here in Sheridan for the next 10 years and worked with acute psychiatric patients.”
After a short stint in the private sector, she returned to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and worked in a rehab program with chronic mentally ill veterans trying to get them resocialized back into society.
“The veterans just hadn’t been recognized,” she said. “Some of the hurts that they came home with just went deeper with silence. When I first came to Sheridan, being a veteran had nothing to do with it. I was Thurmond’s wife and that was how I was accepted into the community. Being a veteran was ignored and I don’t know that it got you anything more than 10 cents and a cup of coffee.
“The first time anyone ever said ‘Thank you for your service’ was about 32 years after I got out and I just about cried,” she continued. “I left things back there in Ohio to serve my country. I had family. I had the comfort of knowing everybody and I had two jobs and a support group. … Now most people don’t know that I served.”
Briggs met and married her fellow Air Force veteran husband while in the service and their daughter later went on to serve for eight years as a reservist. Now retired, Briggs is thrilled to see female soldiers in the news but wishes people would realize veterans have worn lipstick for many years.
“I carry a ball marker on me that was issued by the Air Force and people see it and say, ‘Oh, was Therman in the Air Force?’ and I say ‘Well he was, but so was I.’ So was I.”