A veteran serving other veterans
By Laura Lane Mervosh
Webmaster's Note: The Post encourages woman veterans to join our Post. The following article is about one such woman veteran, Barbara Bryne. The article is dated but it gives insight to one of our women veterans. Barbara Byrne is an active member of the Post and is a member of the American Legion Auxiliary Merrick Unit 1282.
When Barbara Byrne turned 19 years old, she partook in the adventure of a lifetime. She enlisted in the Women's Army Corps. In 1961, the climate in the country was different than now. As the Berlin Wall was erected, many people were inspired by patriotic feelings and enlisted to serve their country in the military. Byrne was working for an insurance company at the time and thought military service would be exciting.
"It was a very interesting experience for me," Byrne said. "I learned to tolerate and appreciate a lot."
The Hearld recently sat down to speak with Byrne and is publishing her story this week to commemorate Flag Day.
Today, the Woman Army Corps, often referred to as the WAC's, is now a part of the regular Army. But, when Byrne joined, woman were trained separately in Alabama.
"There were a lot of women in the service at the time," Byrne explained. "But it was different for women in the service. A lot of people, Northerns looked down on us, but Southerners and Afro-Americans found it as an out from the segregation situation; the service gave them a chance to advance."
Training in Alabama during segregation proved an eye-opener for Byrne. She not only learned how to fire a weapon (although it was understood that woman would not be perform combat duty), but also she became aware of the tragedy of segregation and racism in the 1960's South.
"It was a culture shock," she recalled.
Byrne, like many women at that time, never did service overseas, working instead as a clerk in the U.S. In October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, she was stationed in Chicago working for the company commander. She can still remember being on alert to see what was going on. It was also around this time that she responded to a posting requesting helicopter pilots.
"They weren't taking woman at that time," Byrne recalled. "I couldn't understand why they needed so many men. Two years later, I found out about Vietnam."
Although she left service before America was deeply involved in the Vietnam War, she still experienced the sting from the many Vietnam casualties. Working for American Airlines in reservations, she often received calls from a distraught relative trying to locate the remains of a loved one. She also spoke about the treatment that many American soldiers received upon return from Vietnam. As many people across the U.S. protested the unpopular war, the men who returned were often disregarded and resented. "I was very disgusted with how the young men
were treated. People looked down on them when they returned from Vietnam. I am very glad that they are now recognized as heroes." A few years ago, Byrne visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and sadly recognized many names on the monument. "Being in the officer's club, you met a lot of people," she said. "I recognized some of the generals names on the memorial."
When American Airlines moved its headquarter to Connecticut, Byrne did not follow. Instead, now married and living in Merrick, she concentrated on raising her son and returned to college for a while. She also worked as a cashier at the Old Mill School in North Merrick. And she joined the American Legion. "In 1963, the United States Army was in an advisory capacity in Vietnam," Byrne said. "When I got out of the service, they made those years part of the Vietnam era. That's how I was able to be a part of the American Legion." In the last couple of years, she has become active as the only woman in Merrick's Post 1282. She now serves as vice commander.
Byrne visits nursing homes and places flags on veteran graves in a Hempstead cemetery. Also, she is involved in organizing local schools for an American Legion award at graduation. Byrne sends out letters encouraging the schools to find their candidate for the American Legion Citation and Medal for "excellence in Americanism."
"So far, we have had six grammar schools respond and some high schools," said Byrne, who allows the schools to pick winners and often attends graduations to present the honors.
Byrne was also involved in helping Tom Riordan, 1282 commander, to purchase the new eight-foot monument honoring veterans that was built in Merrick, across from the Camp Avenue School (Merrick's Veteran Memorial Park). She not only worked on fund-raising, but also helped to choose the stone. The monument was erected to honor anyone who has served in the U.S. military. "I don't think that you should forget the veterans," Byrne said.
Byrne maintains friendships with some of the women with whom she served many years ago. She plans to return to Chicago with some of these friends and revisit the area that she once found so exciting and enlightening.
"I really love this country and have very strong feelings for my country," Byrne said.
Note: This article was printed up in the Merrick Herald around 2000-2001.