When May Brill enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and Rita Altman joined the Marine Corps in 1951, family and friends asked: “Is the military a place for a nice Jewish girl?” Each one answered, “Yes,” and gave “patriotism” as their reason.
In advance of Veteran’s Day, which falls this year on Nov. 12, the two veterans recently spoke to members of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, N.J. Their topic was “Catch the Wave: Women in the Military, Yesterday and Today.”
Brill, raised in South Philadelphia, enlisted in the Navy on her 20th birthday and served for two years. She had never been any farther than Atlantic City when she received orders to head for Oakland Naval Aviation Supply Depot in California. “I was lonely and scared,” she said of the five-day train trip. “But I made friends among the 400 women in my barracks. Nine of us were Jewish. Yet, I never felt any anti-Semitism. When we were off duty, we went to USOs in synagogues.”
Rising in rank from seaman to shopkeeper 2nd class, Brill’s all-female unit supplied ships of the Pacific Fleet with everything from food to ammunition. She presently serves as senior vice commander of Jewish War Veterans Post #126,
Altman, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve (Ret.), served 30 years from the Korean War through the Vietnam War. The Philadelphia native graduated from Chestnut Hill College where she saw an announcement for a meeting regarding women and the Marine Corps. She was one of 10 women attendees. Two signed on.
Altman was commissioned the day after she graduated. Her first duty station was the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where she served in public relations. Assignment to the headquarters of Fleet Atlantic in Norfolk followed. There she served as a top-secret courier and decoder. Other assignments included commander of a 150-member unit of the women marines.
Neither woman served in a combat zone. Women were kept from war until the Pentagon ruled in 1973 that they could be attached to a combat unit in support roles, but not in direct ground combat. “However, what women in the military have faced since Desert Storm in 2001 are wars of insurgency,”Altman said. “Women are so integrated, and there are no barriers, no frontlines. There are unpredictable attacks, IEDs and suicide attacks. Women drive trucks to supply lines, serve as medics and fly helicopters.
“The result is that women serving in support roles in Iraq and Afghanistan have sustained and are sustaining the same injures both physically and emotionally as their male counterparts,” she continued. “When women come back to the states, they have problems with alcohol, drugs and homelessness. They also have the same suicide rate.”
Returning women vets can receive a range of services, including medical care, job-hunting and counseling from the Veterans Association. There is also a Suicide Prevention Hotline they can call.
Since Desert Storm, 170,000 women have served tours of duty, including multiple tours. The number of women vets using VA services is up from 160,000 in 2003 to 315,000 at present.
Brill spoke about a new program called “Women in the Military.” “We want volunteers to contact legislators to let them know that women in the military need specific kinds of help. We need to raise awareness. Women vets need to know they’re cared about.” u