Melody Thomas

Ever since I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a Marine. On my 18th birthday, I went into the local recruiting station and tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. They took one look at me, laughed, and sent me away. At 4’11-3/4” I was too short.

Heartbroken, I forgot about military service and went on with my life, getting married at age 19 and starting a career in administration. Besides, the attitude of the time among the general population was that a woman who enlisted in the military was either a prostitute or a lesbian. It was not a career choice for decent women.Melody Thomas Insert

One day at work when I went down to the cafeteria, I spotted a coworker sitting at a table with a poster about the National Guard. My husband’s draft number was low and we were afraid he was going to be called up so I asked my coworker about service in the National Guard on his behalf.  My friend told me they had just opened the Guard to women. The conversation at the dinner table that night went something like: “Guess what I did today.” On May 17, 1975, I enlisted in the New York Army National Guard (NYARNG) under the Civilian Acquired Skills Program (CASP). The program allowed people who already had a skill to enlist for a shorter training period. My basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, was only three weeks long and there was no AIT (skills training) required after that. When I returned from basic training, I was advanced to E3 and awarded an MOS as an administrative clerk.

My first unit of assignment was Company E, 42nd Maintenance Battalion, 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 69th Infantry Division. Women were not allowed to serve in combat units then, so I was assigned to National Guard HQ in Albany and attached to Company E. (The Women’s Army Corps – WACS – was later dissolved and women were merged with their male counterparts in the Army in 1979.) 

I was one of the first women to enlist in the NYARNG and the only woman in my unit. All conversation would stop when I walked into a room and when I walked across the hangar floor, the men would stop working and stare at me the entire way. It was creepy. I soon discovered there were three kinds of men: those who thought women belonged home, bare foot and pregnant; those who wanted women to succeed so badly that they would perform their duties for them in an overeager effort to “help” them; and those who weren’t sure what they thought so they just sat back and watched how things went. 

These types of men soon fell into specific age groups. The “Women Belong Home” men were the oldest (40 to 60 years). The “Women Can Do the Same Work as Men” group were the youngest (18 to 25). The group that chose to sit on the fence were between 25 and 40 years old. Later, after I earned my commission, I would use those attitudes to my advantage. I would ask for help from the older men, come across as a peer with the middle aged group, and act the part of the strong, competent leader of the younger guys.

Since the unit I was attached to was an aviation maintenance unit, I decided I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Many of the guys in the unit had served in Vietnam and told stories of blocks being added to the pedals so short people could fly the choppers. I believed they would do that for me. Before I could become a pilot, I had to be a commissioned officer. In order to get that commission, I had to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). In order to get into OCS, I had to have 50% of a Bachelor’s Degree completed. So, I went back to college. Between life experience credit and night classes, I soon qualified for OCS.  

Empire State Military Academy, the jewel school of the NYARNG, was located in Peekskill, New York. Classes began in August with a two week training period, continued with classes held every third weekend over the course of the following year, and ended with a two week training period in August. I began OCS in 1977 and graduated in 1978. With my new commission in hand, I applied for flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Sadly, I was rejected because – you guessed it – I was too short. I was devastated. The National Guard had been dishonest with me.  They let me go through all the preparatory work only to be told at the finish line that I didn’t qualify.  

In May 1980, I transferred to the 364th Support Group, 77th Army Reserve Command, in Fort Totten, Queens, New York. My first assignment was Rear Area Security Officer. Over the course of my 31-year-career in the military, I would go on to serve in various positions including: company commander, training officer, operations officer, maintenance officer, transportation officer, logistics officer, and inspector general. I was mobilized four times.

The first time I was mobilized was for the New York prison guard strike in 1979 for three weeks. Our pilots flew supplies in and out of the prisons. Other units provided personnel to replace the prison guards. When the strike ended, the prisoners were calling for the guardsmen to stay because they were nicer than the prison guards.

When Operation Desert Storm broke out in 1990, I was mobilized with the IG Office for six months. I remained at home station, helping the soldiers who were being activated. Many of the folks who came in seeking help were medical personnel who believed they did not have to go to war. I remember one young mother of a handicapped child who was looking for help in getting care for her daughter. Another case involved a young married couple. They lived in an apartment complex where single women were not allowed. Because the reservist husband was being mobilized, his wife was being thrown out of their apartment. It was cases such as this that made for a very interesting assignment.

The third time I was mobilized, it was for rescue and recovery efforts when the World Trade Center was attacked. We provided graves registration units set up and ready to process remains.  No bodies were ever processed by those teams. The unit also provided support to the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams who were flying in from all over the country. Every big city has these teams which consist of about 60-70 specialized personnel who work at rescue operations. The team includes engineers, medical staff, financial experts, etc. New York City’s USAR teams had all perished in the collapse of the towers. My unit was activated for 30 days. If we went over 30 days, we would have had to be federalized. No one wanted to spend the money, so we were deactivated. When we were ordered to stand down and withdrew support for the USAR Teams, there was a great deal of anger.  

The last time I was mobilized was in 2005 for a one-year tour of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The U.S. Army Reserve Command sent a by-name request to my unit (a training division) for a logistics officer (I was assigned to the 78th Training Division in Edison, New Jersey). That officer’s son had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and he asked to be exempted from the call up. Since I also held certification as a logistics officer, I was designated as the alternate choice.

The mission was for me to lead a team of six to eight personnel in tracking down Army Reserve equipment that was being left in the Middle East when units redeployed to the United States. The team members were all individual augmentees who came from units across the nation (California, Washington, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, and New York). Over the course of the year, we traveled between Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, and tracked down over half a billion dollars’ worth of equipment. This was important because the services are all funded separately. The active army has their funding, the reserves have theirs, and the National Guard has theirs. When the great accounting takes place at the end of the war, it will be important to sort out and return each sector’s property.

When the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars first started, reserve units were being activated and sent to the Middle East with all their equipment. When they arrived, active duty commanders were confiscating reserve equipment to fill in their own shortages. Many times, the active duty commander did not give the reserve commander any paperwork. Consequently, reserve commanders were returning to the United States with nothing to prove their claims that thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment had been transferred to another unit. Because of their failure to follow standard operating procedures (SOP), reserve commanders were being brought up on charges for the missing equipment.  

Unfortunately, many active duty personnel had disdain for reservists. They didn’t believe they were “real soldiers.” That was funny because while active duty soldiers are trained in one skill (mechanic, clerk, etc.), reservists often have two and three career skills. I felt that made them more valuable. I once met a battalion commander of a maintenance unit who said he would take a reservist over an active duty soldier any time. At least some of the active duty guys understood their value.

I returned from Iraq in December 2005 and was awarded the Bronze Star. The experience I gained allowed me to enhance the training classes I offered back home in the training division.  Sadly, my time in the service was done in September 2006. I had 28 years of commissioned service as a lieutenant colonel and was involuntarily retired for maximum time in service.

Service in the military slowly gained respect among the general population. In the early days of my service, men [had very derogatory views of women advancing in the military]. Gradually, that attitude changed as they saw women were meeting the same education, experience, and time in grade requirements for rank that they had to meet.

I loved my time in military service. I went places and did things I never would have been able to do in the civilian world. I traveled to Japan, Turkey, Labrador, and most of the states in America.  I crawled around tanks, APCs, and engineer equipment during inspections. I lay on the firing line at the weapons range at night with 70 firing points shooting at the same time. Tracers lit the night, the smell of sulphur filled the air, and the concussive effect stole my breath away. I served on general staff and commanded personnel. I met people who served in historical actions including the Battle of the Bulge and the first commander of the 77th Army Reserve Command.  My coworkers came from a wide variety of careers. There were police officers, accountants, salesmen, mechanics, teachers, nurses, business executives, etc.   

Military service teaches so many skills. I strongly support the draft for both men and women.  There are opportunities for school, travel, skills training, and regular advancement. The life experience you gain from exposure to people from all walks of life is irreplaceable. Young people learn responsibility and that there are things greater than themselves. Everyone in America should spend a minimum of two years serving the country – either in the military or the Peace/America Corps. It will make our nation so much better.

LTC Melody C. Thomas, Retired
U.S. Army, 1975-2006


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