Anna Gatti served in World War II.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Why did you choose the navy and not the army,’” she says. “And the reason I did that, I was damned if I was gonna wear khaki underwear.”
Gatti was in the Navy WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. She’s one of more than 40 female veterans who recently flew to Washington, D.C., for Texas’s first all-female Honor Flight. Honor Flight sponsors trips to the nation’s capitol so that World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans can see the memorials built in their honor.
Allen Bergeron is the chairman of Honor Flight Austin. They’ve been flying veterans from Austin to D.C. since 2011.
“It’s a labor of love,” Bergeron says. “It’s a lot of work, but what I tell the board, it’s nowhere near the amount of work it took to storm the beaches of Normandy. We can do this.”
But Bergeron noticed the honorees were almost always men. He decided that needed to change.
“A light bulb came on,” he says. “We need to do this. They’re getting up there in age as well, and they have a story to tell.”
On this particular flight, those stories come from women like Linda Smith, who served during Vietnam. Though female soldiers have only just now been given the opportunity to hold combat roles, servicewomen like Smith have long seen the horrors of war firsthand.
“A lot of it was taking care of soldiers who came back and were severely disabled or maimed,” Smith says. “That’s what I remember the most – them. Because they gave everything. And their spouses, or their loved ones – it was really hard to watch them die.”
Bernadine Flannigan, 95, is one of the oldest members of the Honor Flight. She’s also African-American and grew up in an integrated state. She was in for a shock when she enlisted.
“The Army was segregated,” she says. “It never entered my head that it would be segregated. This is the United States of America, and we’re all one nation, so why wouldn’t it be integrated?”
Flannigan delivered mail to soldiers overseas in dangerous conditions as a part of the postal battalion during World War II.
“We had to turn around and come back to the segregation all over again,” she says. “But it’s gotten better, anyway – much better now than it was then.”
Some of the honorees, like Anna Gatti, shared stories of sexism – another common challenge for women in a male-dominated military.
“It was difficult at first. I was one of the early ones,” Gatti says. “The men – regular Navy – really resented us. ‘This was a man’s world and what are you women doing here?’ But then they saw that we were very serious and we were good at our jobs. And then they accepted us.”
Lindsay Kelly is an Iraq veteran who came along as a volunteer guardian – caretakers who partner with a single veteran during the trip.
“It’s an honor to be with all these ladies that did so much to pave the way for us to be able to serve and feel like an equal,” she says. “I never thought of myself as a woman soldier, I just thought of myself as a soldier.”
Although it’s easier now to see the contributions these veterans made, they weren’t always appreciated. Like the men with whom she served, Linda Smith remembers the cold reception she received after the Vietnam War:
“People were just really angry – really angry,” Smith says. “Because of that … my kids didn’t even really know that I had served until they were much older. Because Vietnam was just kind of the embarrassing war. And it was just how people treated us.”
Austin Honor Flight chairman Bergeron says it’s important these women get the thanks they deserve. He hopes the Honor Flight experience heals some of those old wounds.
“They very much deserve it,” he says.
Vietnam veteran Sylvia Johnson says she felt that gratitude while visiting the memorials in D.C.
“My gosh, this is awesome because you realize what you’re a part of,” Johnson says. “In the greater scheme of things you know you’re a soldier, you know you’re veteran, but when you come here, you realize how big a part you are of this monumental experience.”
She realized she was a part of this community of female veterans in Texas – who she didn’t even know before.
“It was wonderful. There’s a camaraderie among women in the military, that even though we don’t know each other, we know each other,” she says. “Even though we’re in civilian clothes and looking kind of cutesy, we are that soldier underneath.”
Upon landing back in Austin after a whirlwind 36-hour trip, the soldiers were greeted with cheers and applause by friends and family who crowded into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to welcome them home.