‘The sky’s the limit’; Women History Month event focuses on women’s progress in the military

(From left) Retired Col. Pat Jernigan, retired Col. Wendy Messick, chief of Fort Meade’s Directorate of Human Resources, and Lisa Syzmanski share their military experiences in a panel discussion Friday at Fort Meade’s annual Women’s History Month observance at McGill Training Center. (Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr.)

A panel of three women veterans told an audience at McGill Training Center on Friday that there no longer is a glass ceiling for women in the military.

“It’s up to you, the sky’s the limit,” said retired Col. Pat Jernigan, one of the panelists. “It’s a great field.”

The panel discussion was part of Fort Meade’s annual Women’s History Month observance.

This year’s theme is “Honoring Trailblazing Women Who Have Paved The Way For Future Generations.”

The 90-minute event also featured a performance by a middle school choir, displays of prominent women in American history, and a catered lunch of curry chicken and pasta salad.

The observance was co-sponsored by the Defense Media Activity and the Fort Meade garrison.

One of the panelists was retired Col. Wendy Messick, chief of Fort Meade’s Directorate of Human Resources, who began her Army career as a flight operations coordinator and later served in the Army National Guard. Her career progression led to several levels of command and a number of high-level military responsibilities before her retirement in 2008.

Jernigan served briefly in the Navy before enlisting in 1966 in the Women’s Army Corps to serve as a military intelligence agent. She served during one tour in Saigon, Vietnam retired in 1992.

The third panelist, Lisa Szymanski, enlisted in the Army in 1978 and completed gender-integrated basic training to serve as a Preventative Medicine-Environmental Health technician.

Inheriting A Proud History

The celebration began with Master Sgt. Laura Lesche of the U.S. Army Field singing an a cappella rendition of the national anthem. Chaplain (Maj.) Christopher Watson, command chaplain of the Defense Information School, gave the invocation.

Crystal Staples, resource manager for support services at the DMA, was the emcee. Staples read President Donald Trump’s 2017 Women’s History Month Proclamation.

Melissa Crowhurst, the chorus director at MacArthur Middle School, led the Dolce Donna Girls Choir in a performance of “Chantez Alleluia,” (Sing Alleluia), and “Durma, Durma,” a Sephardic folk song.

Col. Bernard Koelsch, deputy director of the DMA, welcomed the audience and gave a special message to the young girls who performed in the choir.

“I’m really pleased that you’re here because this month, this day is for you,” Koelsch said. “The history that is made is the history you’re going to inherit and that you’re going to make your own.”

Sgt. 1st Class Derrick Chambers, Fort Meade’s senior Equal Opportunity advisor, then moderated the 30-minute panel discussion that explored the challenges faced by the panelists while serving in the military, as well as the benefits of their service.

Jernigan said the Navy was a “closed shop” when it came to career options for women. She said there was a dearth of training opportunities, and overseas assignments were rare.

“I was in the wrong outfit,” Jernigan said of her early Navy years.

After enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps in 1966, she was able to carve out a career for herself and travel.

“The Army was a terrific choice. I had a great time,” Jernigan said.

Messick recalled that when she first entered basic training in 1975 for the Women’s Army Corps at Fort McClellan, Ala., she discovered that she could fulfill her potential as a Soldier.

“I found out that I could be all that I could be,” she said. “I was just as tough as the guys.”

Messick said she didn’t notice any biases during her active-duty service and credits the women “who blazed the trail” for breaking down the barriers of gender.

“They stood up for what is right,” Messick said. “They were fighters.”

No Regrets

Szymanski said that when she entered basic training in 1978, the Women’s Army Corps had been disbanded. She and her fellow women Soldiers did encounter resistance from the men.

“They really didn’t want us there,” she said. “They were determined to outdo us and we were determined to stay. We did a good job.”

Szymanski said that during her pregnancy, she wore civilian clothes while on active duty because the Army did not issue pregnancy uniforms. Some male Soldiers, she recalled, insinuated she should leave the service because she was expecting.

But she stayed.

“I have no regrets; I would do it over again,” Szymanski said. “I admire all the glass ceilings that have been broken. I admire all the men and women who are out there doing their best for the country.”

After the panel discussion, Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard acknowledged the guest speakers and gave each of them a plaque of appreciation.

Audience members read display posters about pioneering women in American history and dined on food samplings catered by The Sunday Diner in Bowie and the Fort Meade Commissary.

In addition, representatives from the Fort Meade Army Substance Abuse Program and the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program of the 902nd Military Intelligence Group spoke to service members and civilians about suicide prevention and preventing sexual assault.

Sgt. Maj. Shannon Caviness of Defense Information Systems Agency said she was inspired by the event.

“[The panelists] are definitely trailblazers for us,” she said. “A lot of the things they went through we don’t have to deal with. They overcame for us.

“I truly appreciate and I’m grateful for what they did to open the doors of opportunity for us.”

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