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At Post 644, women veterans work to keep the legacy of their service alive

Jolene Almendarez
American Legion Post 644 is one of likely half a dozen all-women posts in the country.

American legions are known for community service and Greater Cincinnati Women's Post 644 does its fair share. They help raise funds for various veteran organizations, like Annabelle's Place, a residential home for female veterans in North College Hill.

They're one of a few — maybe half a dozen — women's legions in the country. Post 644 was founded in 1946 by women who served in World War II.

Peg Albert is the legion commander and says all-women legions are essential to female veterans.

"I think it's because they felt their problems were not the same as the men's and I've heard that from a lot of women," she says. "The men don't know, or their problems weren't always the same as ours. And sadly, some of the gals don't feel comfortable being with the men and, honestly, I think there are some men, they don't want us there."

Peg Albert
Jolene Almendarez
Peg Albert serves as post commander for Legion 644 in Cincinnati.

Albert served in the Navy Nurse Corps with her sister and was stationed at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. She worked at the first kidney and bone marrow transplant unit in the Navy and remembers seeing President Richard Nixon visit patients.

After she got out, she joined the reserves and worked as a nurse with a few Marine units. She's proud of her service, but feels women's military experiences are often discounted.

"A couple meetings ago, one of the gals — she had been out of the service for several, several years — and one day she said her son said, 'Mom, I never asked you about your service.' And I suspect that is not uncommon," she said. "Our families really don't understand and our friends. So there's a lot of comradery."

It's a feeling shared by many.

'They did everything to have us fail'

Beth Feeser and April Boyle have been part of the legion for about five years. They're Sergeant at Arms and Fiscal Officer, respectively.

Boyle was in the Women's Army Corps in 1978 when it was disbanded and women were integrated into the Army.

"I was one of the first groups that did that. And they made life so hard for us females because they really didn't want us in there. So, they did everything they could try and have us to fail," she said.

In her company of about 120 people, roughly 20 of them were women and about a quarter of them didn't make it through training.

She recalls a time, when she was with a group of soldiers and many of them were struggling to fasten a clasp. She asked her sergeant for help.

"I told him I just couldn't get it, it was so hard this clasp. So he took his fist and he hit me as hard as he could, right here on top of that metal buckle. And I flew ... he knocked me flat on my back."

It wasn't just bullying and meanness. Feeser served around the same time and says it was a lot worse for some women.

"That's when a lot of the problems started with the rapes and everything," she says. "Because they had these male drill sergeants come in, and they saw something they wanted, they took it."

Many of the women were away from home for the first time, and she said they were afraid to say no to their commanding officers.

Military sexual trauma is still a major issue. According to the Disabled American Veterans organization, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men report being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed while in the military.

Serving was still 'great stuff'

But hardship didn't stop Boyle and Feeser from serving. They, and others like them, forged a path for women to have a place serving throughout the military.

Feeser was one of the few female drill sergeants in the Army during her time. Boyle did a little of everything.

"Spent a lot of time out — deployed out in the field, living in tents, foxholes, sleeping on the ground, sleeping on the top of vehicles ... It was very challenging," she said. "But again, this was great stuff. You know, I flew in helicopters a lot. I even drove tank for a little while in my training."

Feeser, Boyle, and Peg Albert all know some things have changed in the military since they got out. They say the care they receive at the VA hospital has even improved. But women today still face their own sets of obstacles in the service. Boyle says other women veterans tell them about it at meetings and events.

Post 2.JPG
Jolene Almendarez
Legion Post 644 has about 60 members, but organizers worry about the future of the post if younger veterans don't join.

"It's almost like they themselves discount their service because nobody thinks anything of women in the military," Boyle said.

Post 644's official membership stands at 62 this year. Albert says a lot of them are more seasoned veterans, but they're trying to recruit new members to sign up.

"I think the younger folks either, I don't know, just want to forget about the military or they want to be with more their group," Albert said. "So if they're an Iraq war veteran, they might want to be more with those folks rather than a mix. Although, I really think you learn from other people."

Albert worries if more younger veterans don’t get involved, this group that’s been so important to women like her could disappear for good.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.