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Community Celebrates 100 Years Of Women In The Military

Hartford Courant - 2/7/2019

Feb. 07--Gallery 153, in Manchester, celebrated 100 years of women in the military at an event on Jan. 27.

Ret. First Sgt. Dora Vasquez-Hellner was the guest speaker. Air Force veteran and artist Michelle Thomas contributed her work for the art show, which debuted at the event.

Christiane O'Brien organized the celebration and curated the art show. O'Brien said she was inspired to invite Vasquez-Hellner to the event after hearing her speak at a Veteran's Day celebration in Norwich that commemorated the 100th anniversary of WWI and women in the military.

"It's like women are behind everything," O'Brien said. "They were the code breakers, they flew air planes, they were the lines of communication of the front line, and now they're in combat. It took 70 years for the Hello Girls to be recognized as full veterans with their benefits. That's crazy."

Vasquez-Hellner spoke about her experience of serving in the military for more than 20 years. Her speech focused on duty, honor, and her country.

She gave a brief history of women in the military, beginning in 1917, and information about the Hello Girls. It was a group of more than 220 American women who served as long distance switchboard operators for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. It wasn't until 1979 that they received their veteran status. A year prior, Vasquez-Hellner began her journey in the military.

"As a little girl growing up in Los Angeles, it was my dad who instilled in me the meaning of patriotism," she said, about her father who served in WWII.

She enlisted right after graduating high school. What started out as 4-year enlistment grew into a 23-year journey taking her across the U.S. to Colorado, North Carolina, and across the world to Germany and Panama.

Vasquez-Hellner entered U.S. Army Airborne Jump School when she entered Ft. Bragg.

"Airborne is a state of mind, the strength to persevere under tough conditions, and the opportunity to be a member of an elite international club," she said. "More importantly, being Airborne taught me to stand on my own two feet and confront challenges head on."

Becoming a paratrooper also allowed her to meet he husband, David. She was promoted to platoon sergeant of a Human Intelligence (HUMINT) platoon which prepared soldiers for battle against Gen. Manuel Noriega. This where she suffered her first case of gender discrimination.

A request for her platoon was canceled when it became known that her platoon was 50 percent female. However, this attitude didn't last.

"Common sense eventually prevailed and my soldiers deployed into the combat zone in small teams. [They] quickly realized that my female soldiers could get the job done," the mother of one said.

She went on to become a resistance instructor with the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School. The school's 3-week program teaches soldiers how avoid being captured, escape and survival skills, and the military code of conduct.

"It was, without a doubt, the most difficult thing I have ever had to endure," Vasquez-Hellner said.

From there she pressed forward, becoming the NCOIC of Resistance Training Laboratory, the prison camp portion of the SERE school. Soldiers would come firsthand to see how efficiently the camp was run under a leader who happened to be female.

Vasquez-Hellner had her share of ups and downs, including making a rough tree landing during an airborne operation. Her experiences made her a true soldier.

When she meets with other females who have served, they share a special connection. Vasquez-Hellner said she is thankful for the Hello Girls for opening doors for her, influence from her father, and support from her family. She said she hopes she has also had an impact on the women that come after her in the armed forces.

"Women are here to stay," Vasquez-Hellner said. "God bless America."


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