VETERANS DAY 2016
For this proud veteran, Army was not always a welcoming career
By Jon Hawley
Monday, April 30, 2018
What if you joined the Army, but the Army doesn't seem to want you?
If you're Jean Chamblee, you keep marching and knock some sense into it – literally, if need be.
Chamblee, of Elizabeth City, served in the military for 21 years, including in the reserves, and today is active with American Legion Post 223 and Disabled American Veterans chapter 64. She's devoted her life to the military – despite how the Army treated women in her first years as a soldier, she recounted in an interview last month at Post 223.
At 21 years old, Chamblee joined the Army in 1974, continuing a family tradition of military service. Her great, great grandfather fought in World War I and her father fought in the Korean War, she said. She and her brother and twin sister joined too.
“My dad, he was so proud of his military past,” she said. “We wanted to join. I wanted to join, and I made my sister join with me.”
And so she was off to Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training. “It was hard at first,” but she got used to being away from home and started enjoying her service.
However, she soon found that some soldiers, including senior officers, thought women didn't belong in the Army.
“We had a colonel at my first duty station — I was at Fort Eustis, Va. — and he did not want females in his company at all,” she said, noting she was the first female in her unit, the 119th Transportation Company, and worked as an orderly. There was no getting through to him, she said, and other soldiers also made it clear they didn't want women around.
“I would get picked on every day,” she said. “I was scared to even go out of the barracks.”
Eventually she had enough of the catcalls and insults.
“This one guy kept picking at me in formation,” she said. “I did an about face and knocked him out. After that, they didn't mess with me any more.”
Still, it was hard, and she said her mother had to talk her out of leaving the service.
“Just say your little prayer and deal with it,” she recalled her mother telling her.
Chamblee also recounted that, while women had served in the Army as far back as 1942, they were in sex-segregated units. The “Women's Army Corps,” wasn't disbanded until 1978, when male and female units were integrated. Not being a “WAC” helped women be accepted, she added.
From Fort Eustis, she went to Osan Air Base in South Korea in 1977, working with the 25th Transportation Center. There were more women, and the Air Force treated women well, she said.
Sexism wasn't gone though, nor was racism, she said. While in Korea, she said a 1st Sergeant told her she wasn't going to get promoted to sergeant because she was black and female.
“And he was right,” she said; she finished her service as a specialist.
From 1978 to 1981, she returned stateside to Fort Story, Va., and then was sent to Italy with the 19th Support Command where she worked in customs and quality control.
Being in Italy was “fantastic,” she said, because she had many opportunities to travel throughout Italy and even to France. “The shopping was nice,” she also noted.
She returned to Ft. Eustis in 1983, she said, and, after another assignment to Korea, went into the active reserves in 1987 through 1995, after which she took a medical retirement.
Though the culture of the military improved in the 1980s, Chamblee said the service still took its toll on her. She lost a friend, who was like a brother, to suicide, she said.
“I suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), you know, because a lot of bad things happened … seeing friends killing themselves because they couldn't make it,” she said. “If you weren't as strong, those are the ones they would pick on the most.” She also noted the Army left her with a bad back and bad knees.
Though she's out of the service now, Chamblee said it's been “awesome” to watch women soldiers' achieve success in the military. Most military roles are now open to women, she noted.
By staying in the service and showing her worth, she also hoped she helped pave the way for them.
“You had to overcome if you wanted to make it in this man's army,” she said. “I talk to some (women soldiers) now to let them know to take each day as it goes … and let them know what I went through to get where they are now.”