Sam Johnson woke up on the forest floor in the middle of the night — machine gun in hand — and started firing from his sleeping sack. It was an ambush attack drill as part of his Reserve Officer Training Corps program, and it did not matter that he was tired to the bone from hours of training. At that moment, all that was on his mind was to protect himself and his team by firing blank rounds at the practice enemy.
While other Gauchos were partying it up in Isla Vista during Deltopia, Mr. Johnson and his classmates of UCSB ROTC were at the military training ground in San Luis Obispo, training in the forest for three days while living out of 35-pound sacks.
He and his classmates will be graduating from the program in about eight months, but a good amount of excitement occurs over the next two weeks, when they will be finding out which branch of the military they’ll be assigned to. Jessica Ann Hanson, a 22-year-old cadet captain, has her fingers crossed that she gets assigned infantry.
“I believe that the rest of the army supports the infantry, lot of logistics behind it. And so if I hope to have a productive and good military career, I think I need to understand what goes on in that branch,” said Ms. Hanson.
The military blood courses strongly through the Hansons’ veins: her grandfather served in WWII; her father is an Iraq War veteran; and her brother is a Marine combat photographer. Ms. Hanson and her father Dwight attended Saturday’s Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation’s 23rd annual military ball. Mr. Hanson glowed with pride of his daughter.
“I’m proud that I’m a Marine, but it pales in comparison to the pride that I have in my daughter who’s going to be in the military and an Army officer,” said Mr. Hanson. “I’m just proud that she’s able to serve. I’m proud that she’ll be included as a soldier. Not a female soldier, not a male soldier; she’s a soldier.”
Mr. Hanson spoke in tandem with the theme of the ball: women in the military. These days, women form a significant portion of the military. About 20 percent of Army officers — which Ms. Hanson hopes to become — are women, while more than 20 percent of Air Force officers are women. The numbers were not always so, and the evening’s guest speaker Eileen McDargh gave a gentle reminder about that.
Ms. McDargh told the story of her mother, Mary Reinberg Burchard, who was one of the almost 1,200 women who flew for the military during WWII. Mrs. Burchard — one of the three women in medical school in the 1930s — served as a test pilot as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The WASPs flew every kind of airplane manufactured in the U.S. However, the female pilots were considered “civilians,” lacking military honor and benefits.
“Thirty-eight of them died during course of duty, but because they were not considered official military, there were no benefits,” said Ms. McDargh to the crowd. “And at least in one case, they passed the hat to send the body home to the parents. And the parents, they could not put a flag on the coffin. They were not allowed to put a gold star on the window that said, ‘I have lost a child in active serve to the war.’”
More than 50 years later, WASPs and kids of WASPs — “We call ourselves KOWs,” said Ms. McDargh — lobbied Congress. Through the effort, the WASPs were granted retroactive military status.
“And Mom got honorable discharge papers,” said Ms. McDargh. “I said, ‘Wow, what does that mean to you?’ She said, ‘it means I could have a flag on my coffin.’”
The past, present and the future of the military who were all at the ball Saturday awed, with an awareness that they too will have the honor of having flags on their coffins.