Holiday recognizes both men and women for service to their country

05/27/2014 9:22 AM

05/27/2014 9:23 AM

As Memorial Day was celebrated Monday, there is no doubt that many people enjoyed time with family and friends either grilling outdoors or maybe taking in a baseball game, in between the raindrops anyway.

Many others, however, spent the day remembering husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who gave the ultimate sacrifice fighting for their country. But that isn’t the only group that was remembered Monday - hundreds more remembered wives, mothers, sisters and daughters too.

Women have been serving in the U.S. military, officially, since 1901 and unofficially since the American Revolution, based on information found in a February 2013 report on women in the military. In World War Two, 543 servicewomen died overall, 16 of those from enemy fire, and in the Korean War and Vietnam War combined, a total of 25 women lost their lives.

As of January 2013, 43 American servicewomen have died in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), including 22 from hostile fire. One hundred and seven women were killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which ended in August 2010, and 62 of those were from hostile fire.

More than 865 servicewomen have received Purple Hearts for wounds incurred through enemy action during these operations. Two women have received the Silver Star for heroism - one in Operation Iraqi Freedom the other in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan).

No-one is more familiar with what women have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice than Weatherford’s Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and now CEO/president of Grace After Fire (GAF), a Texas based non-profit organization dedicated to helping women re-assimiliate to civilian life after serving in the military. Herself a 25-year veteran and among the first round of female fighter pilots, Olson said it’s important to recognize women, as much as men, when it comes to serving.

“[I think it’s important] just to recognize that women have sacrificed for their country,” she said. “The fact that you’re interviewing a female vet...it’s telling of how the times have changed.

“It takes all of America’s population - not just the guys - to make this democracy go. There are women who have given up their collective future for ours.”

Olson was recently elected into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, an honor she both appreciates and understands the impact of, not just for her personally and for her organization but all women veterans.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to be honored but how can I leverage this to help not only GAF but all women veterans?” she said. “I think having that [honor] shows that the CEO/president has been recognized for her work and it makes folks want to contribute to women vets and also shows women vets as a force in the state of Texas.”

The most important thing, Olson stressed, was that women were not “damaged goods” as they may be portrayed as being when they come home from serving.

“Sometimes, in the press, that’s what we’re painted as and we’re simply not that at all,” she said. “We get out of the military and contribute to our communities.”

It was another military woman, retired major general Mary Saunders, who nominated Olson for the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. Saunders was inducted in 2012 and called up Olson and told her she knew of her work with women veterans and wanted to nominate her.

“Anytime a general calls you up and tells you they are going to do something - even when they’re retired - you just salute smartly and say ‘OK,’” Olson said. “It’s as simple as that.”

After sending in some required paperwork in February, Olson said it was about 30 days later that she received the call she had been selected.

“I was just really humbled and when they called me to say I’d been selected, the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Oh, thank you for picking a veteran,’" Olson said. “I think it’s important in this day and age that women in the military, me or any other one it doesn’t matter, get recognition for how much they contribute to not only our country but the state.”

The ceremony was held in the Senate Chambers at the state capitol in Austin and Olson said it moved her in a way she wasn’t expecting.

“When you’ve had the kind of life like mine, it’s a rarity I get at a loss for words per se but it was really heady,” she admitted. “[The ceremony] was beautifully done and the place was packed all the way up to the galleys.”

Sequestered for about 45 minutes in the back, Olson said she didn’t really know what was going on out on the floor until they brought her and the other inductees out.

“I was like whoa!” she said. “It wasn’t that it was so emotional because in my mind I was thinking please don’t trip in these heels or something like that but it was just very humbling. I know I keep saying that word but it is truly that.”

Aside from her family, Olson had about 14 people there to support her. One of those was Paul Paschall, current Weatherford ISD Board of Trustees President and friend, whom Olson served on the WISD board with when she was a member from 2007-2011.

“Kim sent me an e-mail about her induction and as soon as I saw it and understood the honor she was receiving, I had to be there,” Paschall said. “It wasn’t a convenient time but I had made up my mind I was going to go and I am so glad I did.”

Paschall said one of the things that struck him was the caliber of women that were being inducted.

“The inductees were highly knowledgeable, successful, giving and caring people and it was a classy ceremony,” he said. “The State Capitol is just such an historic wonderful symbol of the state of Texas and it was a great venue and beautiful place to have the ceremony...definitely a goose-bump type moment.”

With a young daughter himself, Paschall said he wished she could’ve been there to see it.

“I wished I would’ve taken Gencye out of school to see it because it was an environment where women were recognized and it showcased how women can be successful,” he said. “It’s empowering to show not only my daughter but everyone’s daughter that they can do and be anything they want to be.”

On Olson’s induction, Paschall said the only thing that surprised him about it was that it didn’t happen sooner.

“For me, I am sitting there with these nine other women and I’m thinking, ‘Am I in the right place, are you sure they picked me?’” Olson confessed. “But then they played a video that shows you talking about your career and answering these questions and I guess I do belong with these women; women who have blazed the trail and made Texas better by being there. You just sit a little taller.”

The Governor’s Commission for Women established the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984 to honor the achievements of Texas women while sharing their stories of determination and innovation. The biennial awards highlight Texas women who have made significant contributions, often despite great odds. Nominations are submitted from across the state and reviewed by a panel of judges. Past honorees include first ladies, Olympic athletes and astronauts.

Now that she’s been inducted, Olson said she feels as if it’s her responsibility to look for another woman vet to nominate in 2016.

“My charge now is to look around the state and find her...that’s a cool thing,” she said.

Along with Olson, state Secretary of State Nandita Berry; Houston Rep. Senfronia Thompson, Joanne Herring, Lillie Biggins, president of Fort Worth's largest hospital and current chair of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Board, Texas Woman's University President Ann Stuart, Deborah Tucker, 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Justice Carolyn Wright, and Anita Perry, the governor's wife, were also inducted.

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