By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – Debbie L. Kilpatrick has plans to drive across the country. It will be the ultimate 30-day road trip, one expressing the newly acquired freedom she earned as a result of logging nearly 33 years of federal service that culminated at Fort Lee’s Directorate of Public Works.
On the other hand, it will also serve as a cause and campaign; the means to bring attention to women veteran’s issues and reaffirm her unshakable belief that women in uniform are not token participants in the military but rather military members with the same values and aspirations as their counterparts.
“I see myself educating people to what a woman veteran is because less than 2 percent of the women veterans from my era claim the title of veteran,” said the 60-year-old Olympia, Wash., native and former Soldier. “Mostly, they’re unaware they have that status.
“That’s part of what I look forward to doing – helping women veterans identify and get the (health) care we need, which is considerably specialized considering some of the things we were exposed to while in training.”
The phrase, “Lady, start your engine” might be fitting for Kilpatrick as she drives toward the distant horizon of her stated purpose. That, however, would be a bit late-coming, considering Kilpatrick began revving the motor of her ambitions as a young girl.
“I was a child who wanted to see the world,” said Kilpatrick, who joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1975. “It’s never one thing but several things that drives any of us to join the military.”
Two “things” that drove Kilpatrick to join were an outside-of-the-box desire for adventure and a rejection of expectations.
“I wanted to do more than have children,” said the mother of a 36-year-old son. “I was not wired that way. I was a bit of a tomboy, enjoyed being outdoors more than being inside the house, and just kind of built on that.”
Kilpatrick knew what she wanted and boldly moved to pursue her desires. When she entertained thoughts of enlisting, she did so at the peril of the relationship she had with her Native American father, a man who was anti-government to the core.
“When I told my mother I had enlisted (at the age of 19), her first words were ‘you have to tell your father,’” recalled Kilpatrick. “I enlisted in August, but it was later in that year I told him that I had enlisted. His response was ‘Only a whore would join the Army’ – that would be for anybody – male or female.
“That pretty much ended my relationship with my father.”
The Women’s Army Corps, whose members essentially augmented occupations held by males, was a distinct branch that trained separately and under a different set of standards. Kilpatrick’s impression of WAC members was not very high.
“I thought it was a girl’s club,” she said, noting makeup classes were required and skirts were standard for garrison environments.
After she spent five months as a WAC culminating at Fort Jackson, S.C., Kilpatrick said she was notified she would undergo basic training as males would in the regular Army (on a historical note, the first class of women cadets at West Point started the same year). She and others were shipped off to Fort McClellan, Ala., in January 1976. They would be among the first enlisted women to join the ranks as regular Army Soldiers upon graduation, she said.
Basic training at Fort McClellan, which featured male drill sergeants, was essentially the same as males, but it was not integrated. Kilpatrick said most of the 500 women in her company felt the weight of history, realizing they were flagbearers in the Army’s fledgling efforts to integrate women into its force. The notion itself was romantic but the actuality fostered a tight connection among the trainees, she said.
“We pulled together as a group to get each other to the next level,” said Kilpatrick, noting she is still friends with one of her fellow basic trainees.
The women would need to pull together. Most were not used to the physical and mental stress basic training would rain on them, said Kilpatrick.
“I remember because it was so difficult and extremely emotional; a lot of us would cry at night,” she recalled. “I had smuggled in a stuffed toy that my grandmother made me before I left, and we would pass it around. We all needed that release because we were all afraid every single day would be our last.”
When Kilpatrick’s class finished basic training in March 1976, only 323 received certificates of completion. The dropout rate could be attributed to lack of preparation, concluded Kilpatrick, noting most women at that time were not as athletic as they are today.
Basic training, however, was a godsend compared to her first permanent party assignment at a Fort Bragg, N.C., ordnance unit.
“You’d walk down the hallway and somebody would grab your butt or your boob, and that was everybody – officers on down to senior NCOs,” said Kilpatrick, pointing out how her first sergeant regularly urged her to “go home and make babies” in front of the company formation. She would respond with a robust “This private is here to stay, first sergeant.”
Kilpatrick, trained as a nuclear weapons storage and handling specialist, was not going to quit due to harassment. She adapted to the culture, stayed out of trouble and strived for excellence.
“My biggest solution to that was I couldn’t be one of the guys,” she said. “I had to be a professional, and I was ‘Strat.’”
Throughout her time at the ordnance unit, Kilpatrick said she knew several women who were victimized by male Soldiers. When she was transferred to Okinawa after spending a year at Bragg, she became one herself. One night while on guard duty that allowed Soldiers to sleep when not making security rounds, Kilpatrick was awakened to the sight of a machete held to her throat.
She identified a local national employee as the culprit. Kilpatrick was given a choice to fight in the local courts or return to the states. Humiliated and dejected because the case was bungled, she decided to transfer and was assigned to Fort Stewart, Ga. There, she had to make the case for reassignment in front of the unit’s top enlisted Soldier.
“I went in and had one of the most difficult conversations in my life trying to explain to a first sergeant why I was returning from overseas early,” said Kilpatrick. “Right away, he thought I had done something (wrong).”
Kilpatrick spent another two years at Fort Stewart and ended her military service in 1979. She went on to work for several government agencies in the western U.S. to include the Department of Agriculture.
Employed here since 2005, Kilpatrick retired three weeks ago as the program manager for the National Environmental Policy Act section at DPW.
Despite a successful professional career, Kilpatrick said her sexual assault has been a shadowy, lingering trauma even after nearly 40 years.
“You don’t ever get over it,” she said, without a change in tone or demeanor. “I’ve been in and out of the VA hospital as a patient since 1979.”
Kilpatrick said she recently tried aversion therapy and has seen dramatic results.
“I’ve had peace of mind for two years,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been able to turn out my lights (at night) in a room when I’m by myself.”
One might be inclined to feel sorrow or pity for Kilpatrick. She is more likely to accept compassion and understanding.
“I’m considered highly functional,” she said. “I’ve had a job, I raised a child and I’ve been married. I celebrate each day of peace.”
Despite her circumstances, Kilpatrick said she is still a proud veteran, thankful for her experiences with all who have honorably discharged their duties.
“I’m as proud as anyone who has ever served,” she said.
That pride will be visibly evident during her road trip. The car in which she intends to travel has been wrapped in colorful vinyl with the message “Women are veterans too” emblazoned on the doors. It is her stated purpose, her pitch to the American people.
“I want women to understand if you are a veteran and not claiming veteran’s status, you have the right to get the care. You have the right to have the two years or more of peace I’ve had,” she said. “I want them to go get that help.”
Kilpatrick expects to begin her journey April 1.
Lady, start your engine.
Fort Lee Soldiers, families and civilian employees began a century of support to the nation in 1917 when Camp Lee was established to train the 80th Division for service during WWI. Today, Fort Lee is the Army’s Home of Sustainment and supports the training, education and development of adaptive Army professionals in fields such as transportation, supply, culinary arts and equipment repair and maintenance. Major organizations on the installation include the Defense Commissary Agency, Defense Contract Management Agency, Combined Arms Support Command, the Army Logistics University, U.S. Army Ordnance School, U.S. Army Quartermaster School and U.S. Army Transportation School. Fort Lee supports nearly 86,000 Soldiers, retirees, veterans, family members and civilian employees and boasts an economic impact of about $2.4 billion per year.