When the Department of Defense announced earlier this summer that women will be permitted to serve in hazardous combat positions in the military, including the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Marine infantry, it was an indication of the growing role of women in our armed forces.
Women now make up about 15 percent of the military population. This corresponds to growth in the number of women competing at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in recent years. For the 33rd Games in Tampa, 45 participants are women.
Doris Merrill was in the military when women were rarely seen. Part of the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in World War II, it was not until after she left the Navy (1946) when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed (1948), allowing women to gain permanent status in the military. Merrill said she is thrilled to see more women participating in the NVWG. Her first appearance win the Games was in 1999. At that time, female participants were quite rare, she said.
Twila Adams served in the Army from 1980 to 1991, ending her career as a sergeant. A few years later, in 1994, she broke her neck in an automobile accident and became quadriplegic, initially only able to move her mouth and eyes. Over time she has regained considerable mobility, and this year she is participating in table tennis, bowling, air guns and the tennis exhibition.
Having first attended the NVWG in 2002, Adams said she has seen substantial growth in the number of women attending annually. “It’s been impressive to watch women come out and medal,” Adams said. “And some of the women who were new just a year or two ago, I’ve seen so much improvement. I love to see their smiles.”
That said, Adams emphasized that, at heart, these athletes are not male or female, they are airmen or soldiers or whatever category we performed in while in the military and we all still support each other.”
Jessica Greene from San Jose is attending her second NVWG. Serving in the Army in 1993–94, she was still a cadet when she sustained her injury, C-7 incomplete. “It’s great to see girls,” she said. “It’s good to show everybody that we can do this. It takes away some of the fear that people might have about women in the military. We’ve competed and trained with men. And we have great camaraderie.”
Greene said that women who might be debating attending the Games should try it. “You really don’t know what you can do until you do,” she said. “And the fact is there is so much you can do. It’s fun to challenge yourself, and you’ll leave with a smile on your face.”
Learn more about the National Veterans Wheelchair Games
Tim W. Jackson is a writer and editor in Asheville, N.C.