Celebrating Women Who Served
Volume 144, Number 6, November/December 2010, Page 6
By Lena Anthony
An American Red Cross volunteer caught in the crossfire during World War II. An eye surgeon who operated on an enemy combatant in Afghanistan. A U.S. Marine officer serving in Africa and Iraq. A U.S. naval officer and CIA agent who briefed presidents. Meet four Daughters who have served their country as volunteers or members of the U.S. armed forces. This Veterans Day, honor their heroism and discover what inspired them to serve.
Balancing Military and Civilian Careers
Kathleen Henderson, U.S. Marine Corps
A member of the first class at the U.S. Naval Academy that included women, Kathleen Henderson says the idea of serving her country greatly appealed to her. “I was attracted to that challenge,” she says. “I liked the idea that I was making a contribution with my life.”
Following graduation in 1980, Ms. Henderson served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an internal review officer for six-and-a-half years in New Orleans and then in Okinawa, Japan. After she was relieved of active duty, she went to law school at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. She began her law career first as a clerk for a federal judge, then as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor. Ms. Henderson is now a partner at King & Ballow, a law firm based in Nashville, Tenn. She continued to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves as a colonel, never expecting to be called for duty in Africa.
In 2005, she was deployed to Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa. She was staff judge advocate for a combined joint task force that covered 12 countries, including Kenya, Seychelles, Yemen, Uganda and the Sudan. “Our mission was to provide humanitarian assistance and anti-terrorism support throughout the region,” she says.
She returned to Nashville in 2006, only to be activated again the next year—this time to Iraq. Among her roles, she served as a deposition officer, in which capacity she deposed civilian witnesses, many of whom were children, for the now infamous 2005 killings of 24 Iraqi men, women and children in Haditha, Iraq, by U.S. Marines. “That was a very challenging experience, but also very rewarding,” she says.
Now retired from the military, Ms. Henderson admits that balancing a military career with a civilian one is a challenge. “It’s a sacrifice to your professional career,” she says. “But I feel like there are many benefits, too. I’m physically fit, and the military definitely gave me a sense of perspective on what’s important in life.”
Today, Ms. Henderson, a member of the General Francis Nash Chapter, Nashville, Tenn., focuses most of her energy on building her law practice. She relaxes by exercising, reading and painting with watercolors. “I love to paint scenes from my travels,” she says. “It makes you observant and appreciative of things you otherwise would overlook.”
Photo Courtesy of Jamie Roberts
A Front-Line Witness
Jill Pitts Knappenberger, American Red Cross
Not many women can say they witnessed the Battle of the Bulge—the bloody World War II battle that took the lives of 19,000 American men. But then again, not many women are like Jill Pitts Knappenberger, who can vividly recall her experience as an American Red Cross volunteer in the winter of 1944.
Mrs. Knappenberger was 24 years old when she volunteered for the American Red Cross. The country was in the midst of World War II, and she wanted to serve. “One of my brothers was in the Army and another was in the Navy, and all of my friends were doing something for the service,” she recalls.
She volunteered to operate a Red Cross Clubmobile—a service on wheels that brought good cheer, hot coffee, fresh donuts and other supplies to the combat servicemen. Also on board the Clubmobile were hometown newspapers and a Victrola with loud speakers.
“General Eisenhower, who requested the Clubmobile service, said, ‘There’s nothing worse than a homesick GI,’” Mrs. Knappenberger says. “We were there to boost morale. The job was so fulfilling. Our soldiers were always excited to see an American gal.”
Her first post was in Glatton, England, the home of the largest B-17 base in England. “When the missions came back from the front lines, we served the flight crews first thing,” Mrs. Knappenberger recalls. “I think that made them more relaxed for the post-mission interrogations.”
In 1944, Mrs. Knappenberger volunteered to drive the Clubmobile on the Continent, which is how she ended up in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. She and her crew—two other Clubmobile operators and now lifelong friends—arrived in Saint Vith, Belgium, the day the battle began. “The town was on the very edge of Belgium,” she says. “I could look out the window and see Germany.”
It didn’t take long for them to realize they were in trouble. “They were shelling that area, had cut communication lines and there was nothing coming in or going out,” she says. “And here we were—three American girls in a Clubmobile cut off and completely surrounded.” What’s worse, Mrs. Knappenberger had just received word that her twin brother had been killed in battle that morning. She considers it “a miraculous set of circumstances” that she had been able to see him a few days earlier when he had just arrived on the Continent.
After being trapped for seven days in Saint Vith, the women finally got out. “We survived, but it was terrifying.”
Her experience in battle and her personal tragedy didn’t deter Mrs. Knappenberger, who went back to work on the Clubmobile almost immediately. For the duration of the war, she drove it throughout France, Belgium and Germany. She crossed the Germans’ Siegfried Line twice, flew in B-17s and even toured an old salt mine where the Nazis had stockpiled stolen art. She also saw firsthand the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. “We were there the day after it was taken by the Americans and saw the bodies, the gas rooms and the piles of bones,” she recalls. “It was horrific. You just couldn’t believe one human being could treat another that way.”
Mrs. Knappenberger earned five battle stars for her European Theater Operations ribbon. After the war, she went back to school to finish her degree at the University of Illinois and then married her late husband, Gaillard. They called Champaign, Ill., home, but spent much of their free time traveling the world. Mrs. Knappenberger has been to all 50 states and 98 countries. “We liked every place we’d been, but it was always great to come back home to the USA,” says this member of the Alliance Chapter, Urbana-Champaign, Ill.
Photo courtesy of Jon M. Brouwer
Finding Opportunities to Serve
Phyllis Provost McNeil, U.S. Navy
Phyllis Provost McNeil didn’t grow up wanting to join the Navy. Instead, she joined as a student at the University of Notre Dame after the Navy opened up the Naval Reserve Officer’s Training Corps to women. “I decided to look into it and was impressed by the camaraderie and the opportunity to travel,” says Mrs. McNeil, a member of the Lady Fenwick Chapter, Cheshire, Conn. “My father was thrilled by my intent to join the Navy, but my mother was adamantly opposed.”
After graduating with a degree in government and international relations in 1977, Mrs. McNeil served two tours of active duty during the height of the Cold War. Her first post was in London, where she handled visiting VIPs and protocol matters for the four-star admiral who oversaw naval operations in Europe.
Following that post, which earned her a Navy Achievement Medal, Mrs. McNeil applied for the Navy Judge Advocate General program, but she was not selected. “A superior told me, ‘If they pick a woman this year, you’re going,’ because I had the best credentials,” she recalls. “Unfortunately, they had just picked a woman the year before and didn’t pick one that year. That sounds so strange to say today, but it was the reality then.”
Undeterred, she returned to Notre Dame for law school and began her legal career in private practice in 1983. But after a few years, Mrs. McNeil decided to seek an opportunity with the CIA, where she worked for almost a decade. As a litigation attorney, she handled many Iran-Contra investigations. She also wrote the brief for a case that went to the Supreme Court and often drafted bills for Congress. As an analyst, Mrs. McNeil helped brief presidents and policymakers. She recalls that “President Reagan loved video presentations, because he was so used to film, but President H.W. Bush liked reading, so we’d write him papers.”
After leaving the CIA, Mrs. McNeill was tapped in 1995 for a presidential commission exploring the reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community following the Cold War. While on the commission, she wrote the first unclassified government-sanctioned history of the U.S. intelligence activities. Today the paper is used in college textbooks across the country.
Photo courtesy of Phyllis Provost McNeil
Face-to-Face With the Enemy
Dr. Marjorie Mosier, U.S. Army Reserve
When Dr. Marjorie Mosier and her husband, David, also a doctor, joined the U.S. Army in 1983, they were looking for a break from academic medicine. They both worked at the University of California-Irvine—she in surgical ophthalmology, he in pediatrics—and were burned out. “We had grown tired of the politics,” explains Dr. Mosier.
Joining the Army also fit in with Dr. Mosier’s philosophy on service to country: “I had always felt strongly that young people ought to devote some period of time in their life to their country,” says the member of Katuktu Chapter, Tustin, Calif. “And I had a strong, positive feeling for the life this country gave me, and I wanted to pay that back.”
During the Gulf War, Dr. Mosier and her husband were both based at Fort Ord in Monterey, Calif., for eight months. She oversaw the EENT (ear, eyes, nose and throat) clinic, and he was a staff pediatrician. “It was a delightful experience, both personally and professionally,” Dr. Mosier says. “We look back on that time with pleasure.”
Later, Dr. Mosier would command a team of Army eye experts that could be rapidly deployed on short notice. She eventually left the university and opened her own practice in Irvine in 2002. That same year—just a few months before she would have retired from the Army—she was deployed to Kuwait. “I had been there a few days, and I was sick with dysentery, when they came and told me, ‘You’ll be leaving for Afghanistan in a few hours.’”
She didn’t know why she was being sent, but when she arrived in Afghanistan she encountered an enemy combatant in desperate need of emergency eye surgery. The combatant—then a 15-year-old boy—had shrapnel lodged in both eyes after allegedly throwing a grenade that killed an American medic. She performed the surgery and stayed in Afghanistan for four days to monitor her patient, now detained at Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial. Dr. Mosier has been to Guantanamo Bay twice in the past year to testify as a witness. The proceedings are still ongoing.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Marjorie Mosier