FORT McCOY, Wis. –
In the past few decades, American women have been able to forge their own futures and make their own decisions. Many people working within the Army have never known anything different. Some members of the 88th Readiness Division work force can still remember a time when women were largely under the control of family members and men.
“My parents wanted me to stay home and go to college,” said Becky Burr, 88th Readiness Division budget analyst. She is a former Women’s Army Corps member, and a retired U.S. Army Reserve master sergeant. “I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to go away.”
They compromised, and she joined the WAC, with written parental permission, at 18 years-old, while signing up for the draft was mandatory for young men.
“You needed permission to join as a woman, until you were 21 years old. The culture toward women was still very protection oriented. They wanted to make sure I was safe, I think. It seemed like a controlled environment with structure, pay, and benefits,” said Burr of her post-WWII German-American immigrant parents’ concerns. “There was a lot of tension with race riots, and post-Vietnam problems.”
Today’s Army would’ve been unrecognizable to the WACs.
“Women and men were completely segregated back then. In fact, they said they would put you out for mental disorder if we talked to men,” she said, while browsing photos taken in 1971 on her iPhone. “Because you don’t talk to trees, and men are trees.
“Basic training was like a finishing school. We learned to do our makeup. How to walk with perfect posture. We had our own PT program. We were not issued any sort of combat type uniform. It was completely different,” said Burr. “We didn’t have cars, and we didn’t have anywhere to go besides the service club.”
Becky Burr talks with self-deprecating humor. “I am old, born in 1953. We didn’t have these fancy iPhones. I worked as a telecommunication operator, thinking it would translate into a job as a civilian switchboard operator, but we were really doing something different than what companies outside the military were doing. It was coding and decoding. I, with German parents, needed and got a top-secret clearance.”
Women faced challenges as their roles expanded from office workers, cooks, and nurses, and the Army has become more accepting of their roles as mothers over the decades, with the addition of family care plans for service members with families.
“I was kicked out when I got pregnant, even though I was married,” she said.
She was able to come back as an integrated U.S. Army Reserve Soldier in the military technician program as a supply specialist for the 1152nd Transportation Company in Milwaukee. The transition faced a myriad of problems from transition resistance by male coworkers, to uniform fit.
“They said ‘you can’t stay here. We don’t have a female bathroom,’” she said. “Qualifying with a weapon was not in my vocabulary before we integrated. Men were not sympathetic. They did not want to help. Women had to do a lot of groveling for help.”
“We used to do pushups on our knees, now we were doing men’s PT. The uniforms in the WAC, especially the shoes, were made for women and comfortable. Now our uniforms and boots were designed for men, but our bodies are different. They were not comfortable.”
After more than 37 years in the service with the hardships of all the transitions of the times and many years as a Department of the Army civilian, she still finds pleasure in her job, where sarcastic banter goes through the cubicles.
“The highlight of my career was speaking at the Sergeant Major’s Academy. I never thought I’d get that opportunity. I never attained that rank, but they chose me, who never made it to their rank, when my daughter-in-law submitted my name,” said Burr through teary eyes. “She had faith in my career and my whole life. I’ve mentored some of these people, and that gives me a lot of pride. What’s better than taking care of Soldiers and seeing them develop into the people they are.”
At 65, Burr said she will not sit at home. “I’d go crazy,” she said, before joining her friends for lunch in the break room, where they discuss the daily news.