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Former Chemical School commandant describes Army women's progress
Former Chemical School commandant describes Army women's progress

Brig. Gen. Patricia Nilo
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (March 30, 2010) — Retired Brig. Gen. Patricia Nilo joined the Army near the end of the Vietnam War when women were still rare outside the nursing corps. As keynote speaker Monday for the kickoff event of Women’s History Month at Fort Leonard Wood, where she commanded what was known as the Army Chemical School during her time as commandant, Nilo told her audience what it was like to be commander of the Pine Bluff Arsenal and have to explain her job to a first-grader in a local Arkansas school.

Nilo said she arrived at the local school in Arkansas in her Class A dress uniform and accompanied the principal into a classroom to speak to the students.

“This little 6-year-old comes up to me and she tugs on my pants, and she looks up and she said, ‘Well, who are you?’” Nilo said. “I explained to her who I was and I told her I was from the arsenal. She said, ‘What do you do at the arsenal?’ and I was trying to figure out, ‘How do I explain that I command the arsenal to a 6-year-old?’ So I said, “I’m the boss of the arsenal.’”

Nilo said the young girl stopped and thought for a moment about what the uniformed adult standing in front of her had just said.

“Then her eyes got as big as saucers and she looked up at me and said, ‘But you’re a girl!’” Nilo said, leading to loud laughs from her audience.

Nilo agreed that the story was humorous, but said it shows something that’s less funny as well.

“It’s also a little sad that this little girl was so shocked by the fact that she saw a woman doing something she thought only a man can do. I hope she grows up to be president,” Nilo said.

Nilo, a native of Massachusetts who graduated from Boston State College with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, joined the Army in 1974 with a direct commission as a first lieutenant. That was an era when many men were avoiding military service, but Nilo chose a different path.

“I wish I could say it was patriotism and dedication that was why I did it,” Nilo said. “That was maybe a second reason, but the economy was a big reason, as for many who join the Army. At that time jobs were hard to come by and I decided to go into the military. A friend of mine was in the military, liked it, and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll try it.’ I went into the military and I was only going to do it for about two years. Well, 30 years later I retired.”

Nilo’s decision to join the military was rare in the 1970s, but not unprecedented for women. She told her audience about numerous examples of women in the military, some of whom lied about their gender to join the military, including female soldiers in the Revolutionary War, a female Marine who served in the War of 1812, and several women who served in both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, usually without their commanders realizing they were female. By the time of the Civil War, about 400 women were serving on both sides, not counting thousands serving as nurses, and 80 were wounded or killed.

Some women made no attempt to hide their gender; one woman who joined the Army with her husband was promoted to the brevet (temporary) rank of colonel during the Mexican-American War and the first female recipient of the Medal of Honor was a volunteer doctor serving with the Union Army who became a prisoner of war in a Confederate prison camp along with the male troops she was serving.

“When Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to include only active combat with an enemy, she refused to give back her Medal of Honor, wearing it every day until her death in 1919. An Army board reinstated her medal in 1977, citing her distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching service,” Nilo said.

“The purpose of the observance (of women’s history month) is to recognize the contributions of women to our society who have sacrificed so that we could realize our goals and ambitions. It’s also a time to make a commitment or renew our responsibility to provide the opportunity for future generations to achieve even higher goals than we were able to achieve,” Nilo said.

While the chemical corps now has a number of female colonels, Nilo entered the military in a day when female mentors for young officers were rare outside the nursing corps.

“We just did not have the women there,” Nilo said. “There were a number of chemical officers and some infantry officers when I was in Germany that helped me along the way, but I’ll tell you one thing, my biggest mentors in the Army were the NCOs. They were the ones that educated me, that helped me, that protected me while I was learning, and I owe a lot to them in their enabling me to get where I am today.”

Winning over those non-commissioned officers took time, however.

“I was the first female company commander at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and the brigade commander at that time told me that I was getting promoted to captain and he told me at that time that he was going to let me try the job as company commander, not become a company commander, and understand that I would be under a microscope,” Nilo said. “When the NCOs knew that I was coming to the company, many of them wanted to bail out, most of them didn’t, and after I was there for a while it wasn’t an issue anymore. I think a lot of people had a fear, a prejudice, a lack of understanding, and once that went away I think things were normal.”

Not all of Nilo’s commanders in the Army wanted her around, however.

“I was the first female brigade chemical officer in the First Army Division, and when I got to the brigade, the brigade commander brought me into his office, and he told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want me there because I was a woman, and if we went to war, I’d go home with the women and the children,” Nilo said. “Those were the kind of attitudes that we had to overcome, but I think there were at that time a lot more supporters than dissenters and I hope when the dust settled, we made it a little easier for those behind us to come to those positions.”

By the time Nilo achieved command positions herself, many attitudes were changing, but the 6-year-old schoolgirl wasn’t the only person unfamiliar with women in command.

“I was at Fort McClellan as battalion commander, and I was at the bus station at the airport for some reason, and I had my uniform on and this young recruit came off the plane and was looking for the bus, and she came up to me and said, ‘Are you the bus driver?’ I thought, ‘No, but I may be the battalion commander,’” said Nilo. “It’s interesting. We just took it day by day, but there are people who didn’t recognize that we were part of the military at that time.”

Nilo joined the Army via direct commission as an officer in a day when women were not allowed to be students as the three military academies and the ROTC program in civilian colleges was for men only. Women had been officially allowed to join the military just a few generations earlier in the years preceding World War I, and then only as a wartime emergency measure.

“They served their country even before women were given the right to vote. It would be 23 years before women could even remotely be considered an integral part of the United States military establishment,” Nilo said, noting that while the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and Women’s Army Corps were formally established during World War II, it wasn’t until 1948 that women’s role was regularized.

About 120,000 women served on active duty during the Korean War and by the 1950s nearly a million women had served in uniform, she said. Most of those women served in positions in the United States or other locations outside combat theaters that freed men from non-combat duties so they could be sent overseas, but Nilo said 500 Army WACs served on the ground in Vietnam, along with about 6,000 female members of the Air Force.

Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait and push Saddam Hussein’s armies back to Iraq in 1991 marked a major change in the role of women, with 40,000 women serving. That was the largest deployment of women to a combat theater up to that point, she said, and five times that number — about 200,000 — have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since the current wars began in 2002. About 15.5 percent of soldiers in the Army are female, she said; about 450 women have been injured and 60 have been killed in the current conflicts.

“Since Desert Storm women have been quietly and effectively performing their jobs worldwide,” Nilo said. “A paradox still exists for women. Despite the policy designed to keep women away from units engaged in ground combat positions, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed women in battle with insurgents today who do not operate in defined lines. We no longer operate on linear battlefields. Women today will earn that right for women tomorrow.”

Nilo is far from the only female soldier to receive stars as general officer in the Army; Claudia Kennedy became the Army’s first three-star general in 1997 and Anne Dunwoody became the first four-star general in 2008. In Nilo’s own Chemical Corps, there are currently at least three women who are full colonels, though Nilo to date is the only female general officer.

In her own military career, Nilo reached mandatory retirement age just as the hunt for weapons of mass destruction was underway in Iraq and the issue of potential chemical or biological attacks was being raised in the United States. She said her role at Fort Leonard Wood was greatly affected by the events following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“That became a very busy time for installation protection,” Nilo said. “We got definitely embroiled in the things we do for installation protection and Fort Leonard Wood kind of led the way since we have the engineers and the MPs here, obviously. We were quite busy with developing what we needed to do to protect the installation.”

Army personnel worldwide, as well as civilian police and emergency planners in the United States, quickly realized that they needed to train for threats which hadn’t been seriously considered before. Organizations like the 7th Civil Support Team at Fort Leonard Wood, a full-time unit of the Missouri National Guard which trains regularly to identify and respond to potential chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks, didn’t exist then.

“We recognized that our chemical soldiers, we weren’t training them to respond to modern terrorism, modern warfare, asymmetrical warfare that we would find on the battlefields,” Nilo said. “One key things that really opened our eyes to this was there was a suspected anthrax attack at the hospital.”

While soldiers and emergency teams arrived at the hospital within minutes, they weren’t prepared to deal with the suspected attack since they couldn’t use the Level A Hazmat suits that would be required to protect them against anthrax if it had been present.

“Our soldiers couldn’t respond because they were not trained in Level A and they couldn’t go into that environment, under regulations at that time, without Level A. It was kind of like a smack in the face, we’re not doing something right,” Nilo said. “Since then, we’ve turned that around and are allowing our soldiers to be better trained to respond in incidents like that.”

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