The Ripon Forum

Volume 54, No. 5

Veterans Day 2020

“On November 11, Let’s Thank Our Women Veterans.”

By on November 8, 2020

by PAMELA POWERS

I recently saw a picture of two fighter pilots, one who was in her 90s and the other who was in her 40s.

Betty “Tack” Blake was one of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs), the first group of women to become military aviators during World War II. Betty was flying at age 14 and met Amelia Earhart in 1935 – Earhart told her to “keep going and do something exciting and show that women can fly.” After watching the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Betty joined the Navy and was one of the first women in history to fly a fighter aircraft. Despite her patriotism, Betty and other women pilots faced criticism and weren’t considered Veterans until decades later, in 2010.

The other woman in the photo was Nicole “FiFi” Malachowski, who was the first female Air Force Thunderbird Pilot. Nicole has a similar story – she was flying when she was barely old enough to have a driver’s license, flew more than 188 combat hours, and was part of the first fighter formation to provide security for Iraq’s democratic elections in 2005.

Separated by decades, both Betty and Nicole showed that women are still contributing to the defense of this nation, and that there are still hurdles to overcome. When they took that picture, Betty told Nicole, “Never stop believing in yourself, no matter the critics. Just fly the plane.” Veterans Day is a day set aside to honor all the brave men and women who’ve worn the uniform of this great nation. But this Veterans Day, I can’t help but think of the women like Betty who paved the way for Nicole and thousands of other women patriots.

Courage is courage, excellence is excellence, and sacrifice is sacrifice, regardless of gender.

I am one of those women. After nearly 30 years of service in an Air Force uniform, I learned that courage is courage, excellence is excellence, and sacrifice is sacrifice, regardless of gender. I saw firsthand the inclusion of women into combat roles and the transformation of our military, and now I’m honored to serve as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ first female deputy secretary.

I’m not the only woman leader at VA, and more than 60 percent of this department is staffed by women. These women are advancing an important goal – making sure that the women who have shown grit in serving this nation realize that they too are Veterans, and that this is their VA. VA is working to ensure women Veterans can be served at all our hospitals and clinics and have access to gender-specific quality care in a safe and welcoming environment. This is a top priority at VA because women are increasingly coming to VA for care. The number of women we serve has more than tripled from about 160,000 in 2000 to more than 510,000 in 2018. By 2025, VA will be serving 1 million women Veterans.

Every woman that comes to VA is finding a department that is undergoing revolutionary change and modernization, under the leadership of VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who is also a Veteran. We have made customer service our top priority and are working to make it easier for Veterans to access care and benefits. These efforts have paid off, as Veteran trust in VA care hit a record high this year.

Colonel Pamela Powers in Iraq in 2016.

We have given Veterans the choice of using community care whenever it’s in their medical interest, which puts Veterans at the center of their care decisions. We are working with the Department of Defense to help members of the military transition back to civilian life, modernizing the way we track Veterans’ health history, and working hard on President Trump’s plan to reduce Veteran suicide. And we have made it our mission to ensure our women Veterans are honored and cared for with the same dedication and commitment in which we serve our male Veterans. They deserve no less.

The oldest living U.S. Marine is Dorothy Cole, who just celebrated her 107th birthday. She decided to join the Marines after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. “Everyone was out doing something, the women helping the Red Cross or even in the churches they were knitting things. So, I decided that I wanted to do something, and I would go into the Marine Corps,” Cole said. American women have shown for generations that love of country does not reside only in the hearts of men, and that they too can “do something” to defend the liberty and freedom we all cherish.

So, on this Veterans day, please say thank you to all our men and women who have served and sacrificed so much for this great nation.

Pamela Powers serves as Acting Deputy Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She has nearly 30 years of service in the Air Force and the Department of Defense. Secretary Powers also served as the Executive Director for the Air Reserve Forces Policy Committee and as a Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

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