- - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When Iowa’s newly elected Republican senator is sworn in next month, she will be the first woman veteran to serve in the United States Senate, a chamber boasting fewer and fewer members who have served in the armed forces. Sen.-elect Jodi Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, has served in the Guard and Reserves for some 21 years and spent 14 months as a company commander in Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

Women serving in the active-duty military have become more accepted in recent years, and many have served and are serving today with distinction alongside their male counterparts. Another combat tested veteran may be seated in the House this week: retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally won Arizona’s 2nd District race by 161 votes on November 4th and the results of a mandatory recount triggered by the close vote will announced on Wednesday. Her hopeful GOP colleagues have already prepared a welcome for her by voting her seats on both the coveted Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. McSally was the first woman to fly in combat and the first to command an Air Force fighter squadron.

The role and value of women in combat has been debated for years, but it might be wise to remember that against great odds many women have contributed to America’s war efforts since the founding of the republic. The first woman to fight side by side with the men of her era was Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts. In 1781, she donned men’s clothing, assumed the name of her deceased brother,and joined up to fight the British. Sampson had served from the age of 10 as an indentured servant and learned to handle a musket with which she was reportedly as good at it as any of the men with whom she shot and hunted.

Sampson served for three years, was wounded several times and managed to avoid discovery until she contracted a fever that put her in the hospital, where she lost consciousness. The doctor treating her discovered that the boy whose fellow soldiers brought in for treatment was a girl, but he didn’t report her. Instead, the doctor moved her to his own home where he continued to treat her until she fully recovered. He had heard tales of her courage and decided to handle his discovery more delicately than one might have predicted at the time.

At the time of her illness, Sampson was serving as Aide-de-Camp to Gen. John Patterson, who had described her to a fellow officer as “one of my finest men and one of our quiet heroes” and praised Sampson’s skill with a musket. The doctor wrote and sealed a letter to the general and gave Sampson money to return to his headquarters. Instead of reprimanding her, the general upon reading the letter reportedly told her, “You are a very courageous woman” and explained that the doctor was right in urging him to treat her as a “hero.”

Sampson received an honorable discharge and returned to Massachusetts, where she married and had three children. Like more than a few who served, however, Sampson hadn’t been paid for her service so in 1792, she petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to grant her the pay she was owed. The vote was unanimous. The resolution granting her request declared in part she had “exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism, by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier,” and “was discharged from the service with a fair and honorable character.”

Later, upon hearing her story, Patrick Henry asked Congress to grant her a pension. and it too was granted favorably. A statue honoring Sampson stands today in Sharon, Mass. The headstone on her grave lists her name, the name she took when she enlisted and a simple, but accurate description of the woman buried beneath it: “The Female Soldier, Service (1781-1783).

The first, but not the last. And their country is lucky to have them.

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