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5 Facts You Didn't Know About Women in the Military

Remember back in 2013 when former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in frontline combat positions? It made major headlines and seemed like a huge breakthrough, right? But what we forgot back then—and tend to forget ongoing—is that women have ALWAYS played a major role in wars, combat, and military service. Ancient warrior women from cultures the world over fought alongside men. Celtic warriors like Boudicca and Grace O’Malley, along with more well-known historic figures including Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, Lysistrata, and Cleopatra were all instrumental in planning and executing wars on behalf of their home nations. Here in America, however, women were relegated to non-combat roles from the Revolutionary War right up until 2013. So it makes sense that we'd be surprised when they were finally welcomed back to the front lines. And since women warriors are still overlooked much of the time, here are some fascinating facts about how women have contributed to—and been affected by—military service over the decades:

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1. Military academies were closed to women until 1976

Plenty of women served as nurses, codebreakers, ambulance drivers, and loads of other roles in American conflicts, but none were admitted to West Point or the Naval or Air Force Academies. That is, until President Gerald Ford signed in Public Law 94-106 in October of 1975. By the time enrollment was open the following year, more than 300 women enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

2. 10% of U.S. Military veterans are women

That's more than 2 million women! While the number of male veterans is expected to decline by 2020, the number of women veterans is expected to grow dramatically. According to the Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA), women comprised 6.8 percent of the VA's veteran patients in 2013. This fascinating report by the charitable organization Disabled American Veterans states, "Research conducted by VA shows that almost one in five women veterans has delayed or gone without needed care in the prior 12 months."

3. 33% of active duty enlisted women are African American

In addition, more than 15 percent of active duty women officers are African American. These brave women serve in every military occupation currently open to their gender, and in every pay-grade through Brigadier General/Rear Admiral.

4. Nearly a quarter of women veterans cope with PTS

In addition to facing the same stressors that all military personnel face – combat, feelings of isolation, worrying about family back home – many women in the military must deal with sexual harassment and military sexual trauma. The VA cites studies finding that between 20 and 27 of every 100 female veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress (PTS) sometime during their postwar lives. While researching my book, Wounded Warrior, Wounded Wife, I've also spoken to spouses of military veterans who grapple with secondary PTS.

5. Only one woman has ever received the Medal of Honor

The U.S. military's greatest honor has only been given to one woman—Mary Edwards Walker—and it was during the Civil War! Not only that, the medal was revoked in 1917 … though restored again in 1977. Walker served as a surgeon for Union forces, and was a prisoner of war for four months during which time she was treated as a spy by Confederate troops.

Interested in learning more about women in combat and the U.S. Military? I highly recommend this National Public Radio series, On the Front Lines: Women in War!