In honor of Veterans Day, The Gazette spoke with two Capital Region women who served in the United States military during the Vietnam War and continued to serve the country long after.
Between social revolution in the United States, and conflicts abroad, like the Vietnam War, the 1960s were a turbulent time.
For women like Patricia L. Connors Bradt and Celeste Joanna Sodano it was the perfect time to enlist in the United States military.
They were part of a wave of women who enlisted during the 1960s and 1970s. Over 7,500 women were stationed in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, many working as nurses and physicians, according to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. But there were hundreds of thousands of others who served in military bases across the world, assisting with the war, and facing protests and unrest from civilians.
At times, it felt like there was a war going on in the U.S. as well as abroad, said Connors Bradt when The Gazette interviewed her in her Niskayuna home. It’s decorated nearly wall-to-wall with naval-related decor, from paintings of ships to a genuine knot board to a ship helm or two. The decor represents a love of both the sea and the service that’s only grown over the years.
Connors Bradt served in the United States Navy for five years, from 1965 to 1970. After she was honorably discharged she went on to serve the military as a civilian.
Sodano, a Schenectady resident, is just as patriotic, and just as enthusiastic about the United States Army, which she served in from 1966 to 1993, becoming the first woman in the New York Army National Guard to be hired as a full-time technician. She still has her uniform, perfectly pressed and decorated with over 17 awards. She remains, as she said, a true patriot, which was just as true when she first enlisted, right out of high school.
Sodano said at the time, serving in the military seemed like a good thing to do. It was also a family affair of sorts; her brother and four cousins enlisted about the same time she did. Though her father wasn’t happy that she decided to enlist, the rest of her family was proud.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity,” Sodano said, “It became my career, unbeknownst to me when I joined. It was a hell of an adventure.”
After basic training and serving on a few Army bases stateside, she was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, working in personnel. There were between 50 and 60 women stationed at the Women’s Army Corp base; a small fraction of the number of men stationed in Okinawa, Sodano said.
While Sodano wasn’t in Vietnam, the U.S. base was one of the closest to Vietnam so they were often moving bombs in and out of there, as well as bringing the severely wounded in.
Sodano said she vividly remembers the B-52s being brought out of the base. Right down the hill from their detachment was the Camp Kue Hospital, where many of the soldiers wounded in Vietnam were brought over in helicopters.
“[It] was something like you’d see on ‘M*A*S*H,’ crazy stuff like that,” Sodano said.
Off the base, Sodano remembers how unwelcome the U.S. forces were.
“There were constant protestors,” Sodano said, “The Japanese didn’t want us there.”
Meanwhile, stateside, Connors Bradt was dealing with similar protests.
She enlisted in the Navy in 1965 because, like Sodano, she thought it would be a good opportunity and it was somewhat of a family tradition.
“My father served underage in World War II and enlisted in the [United States Air Force] after WWII and retired after 26 years with the USAF,” Connors Bradt said, “My mother always wanted to go in but she was too short.”
At the time she enlisted, women weren’t allowed on ships. They had to stick to inland positions, which Connors Bradt hoped would change while she was in the service.
“Back then, women weren’t really taken too seriously in the military,” Connors Bradt said, “Women didn’t make admiral then or anything like that.”
During her time in training, she recalls one commander, Anne L. Ducey telling her and other women who were serving “Well, this is the way it is in this man’s Navy. I’m more concerned about a taut hip than a taut ship.”
It was frustrating, but there wasn’t much she could do about it, said Connors Bradt. She tried to keep moving on and up, making her way to data processing training before being transferred to Treasure Island, San Francisco in 1967.
“At this time anti-Vietnam War sentiment was very apparent in [the] San Francisco Bay area with protests and bomb threats to our military installations, not just there but across the country,” Connors Bradt said.
“That was terrible. You couldn’t go anywhere in uniform. They didn’t like us—why I don’t know. We weren’t the enemy,” Connors Bradt said. It felt like they were under attack stateside just as well as abroad, according to Connors Bradt. She remembers frequent bomb threats were made to various bases when she served.
Later on, she was transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and served under Admiral John McCain, of the U.S. Pacific Command.
“His son was [a] prisoner of war when I served under him,” Connors Bradt said, “He treated everyone with respect, no matter what your rank was, and he encouraged all of us to do our best because there was a war going on.”
While serving at Pearl Harbor, she continued to work in data processing, only this time it was with data coming directly from the war.
“I was on the computer end of the intelligence networks so I had top secret clearance,” Connors Bradt said, “We processed the data that came in daily from Vietnam.”
With those experiences in data processing, she knew she would have a bit of job security in the future. She was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1970.
“I thought I wanted to get married and have a family. [But] back then, women [in the Navy] could not have dependents under the age of 18. Men could. It was a double standard,” Connors Bradt said.
Instead, she went to college and then took a job with the U.S. Geological Survey for about 17 years, which is in part how she ended up in the Capital Region.
“At the time I was with the USGS, I was a member of Vietnam Veterans of America and lobbied Congress to recognize the effects of Agent Orange and PTSD,” Connors Bradt said. Agent Orange was a blend of herbicides that the U.S. military used during the Vietnam conflict. According to a White House press release, over 19 million gallons were sprayed in Vietnam to remove foliage and undergrowth. It had disastrous impacts on the health of Vietnam veterans, which Congress didn’t recognize until 1991 with the Agent Orange Act. PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was recognized by Congress just a few years prior to that. Both were tough fights according to Connors Bradt.
Besides working for USGS, she also spent about 20 years working for the department of defense in a few capacities, as an assistant to the Senior Army Advisor and then as a family program assistant for the National Guard. Considering the intense feud in the Army-Navy football rivalry, which she was certainly invested in and remains invested in to this day, it was certainly a change.
“I worked for the Army, isn’t that a riot?” Connors Bradt said. She also received a civilian service award from the army as well as a senior advisor assistant award. The later plaque has her nickname, “Chihuahua on Steroids,” engraved on it. She also married Dan Bradt, who served for about 40 years in the Army.
“We’re a patriotic military family,” Connors Bradt said.
Sodano, in the early 1970s, considered taking a similar path to Connors Bradt. Maybe start a family or pursue another career. But shortly after she was discharged in 1971, she decided that civilian life wasn’t for her. She returned to the service the following year and broke a nearly 300-year military tradition.
At 25 years old, in 1973, Sodano became the first woman to join the HQ and HQ Detachment, 727th Maintenance Battalion and to be appointed full-time employment in the New York National Guard’s Technician Program.
“It was overwhelming,” Sodano said, “I felt like I had to make sure that I was giving 150 percent because I was making the way for all these women coming behind me.”
Newspapers from around the country published articles about her appointment. In one article, an Army captain was quoted saying “They’re getting their money’s worth from Celeste. She reflects the pattern for the quality woman we will be taking into the Guard. She is skilled, educated and presentable.” In another, Sodano’s family members were quoted saying “Celeste, who stands all of five feet high and holds the rank of Staff sergeant, wanted to prove to herself that she could achieve recognition in the Guard.”
But not everyone was happy to have women coming into those positions, said Sodano. Luckily, she had a few mentors to help her through, including General Lawrence Flynn, who was Major General of the NY Army National Guard.
“[He called me] because I was the first woman to join his organization. He ran Camp Smith, in Peekskill, New York. I went down there because he wanted me to look at the base and tell him what he would need to do to accommodate the influx of women,” Sodano said.
“I said to him, ‘Well, first of all, we don’t like to pee with everybody else so you have to have private stalls and we don’t like to shower with each other so you have to fix the showers.’” They both laughed at that, Sodano said, but he took her recommendations seriously and made the changes.
“General Flynn was one of my ardent supporters. Along the way, you had to have people to help you. Some of the guys didn’t want us there, but this guy wanted us there,” Sodano said. Under General Flynn, Sodano became a First Lieutenant and eventually achieved the rank of Major. Sodano also served during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
“What do you think, did I do enough for our country?” Sodano said during an interview with the Gazette, as she looked over her awards, certificates and decorations. Those include an Armed Forces Reserve Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, an Army Overseas Service Ribbon and several Sharpshooter Badges, among others. They span 20-plus years of her life, marking her journey from Private to Sergeant First Class and worked all the way up to Major shortly before she retired in 1993.
Paving the way
Both Sodano and Connors Bradt were a part of a wave of women who entered the military. In the 1950s and 1960s, leadership within the Women’s Army Corps was working to expand the positions that women could hold within the military. In 1965, the first WAC officers were deployed in Vietnam, but it wasn’t until the mid and late 1970s that women in the military were allowed to integrate into the same basic training units and be admitted to all service academies.
“In 1964, there were only 230 enlisted women in the far east. Then by 1970, there were 1500 women serving in the Far East,” Sodano said.
Connors Bradt also noticed a few changes during her time in the Navy when it came to women serving in the military.
“Towards the end, when I got out in 1970, things were starting to change because women were all protesting that they wanted equal rights,” Connors Bradt said.
Today, there are over 200,000 women serving in the military. According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of active-duty military personnel are women, which is up from 11 percent in 1990. In 2017, Women made up about 18 percent of the Navy and 14 percent of the Army.
“I’d like to think that my generation paved the way for the women today,” Connors Bradt said.
Her trailblazing-generation is part of why the Vietnam Veterans Women’s Memorial in Washington D.C. was established in 1993. The bronze statue, designed by Glenna Goodacre, shows three female nurses assisting a wounded soldier. It’s close to the Vietnam Memorial, which has more than 58,300 names of the people who died in Vietnam.
Sodano and Connors Bradt have both visited the Women’s Memorial and found it moving. However, Sodano said it’s still all too easy for people to forget the sacrifices that were made both on and off the battlefield, by both men and women.
There are remembrance events and services scheduled to honor those who have fought for and served the country. Here’s a glimpse at a few:
Albany’s Annual Veterans Day Parade
Starting at 11 a.m. Monday at the intersection of Central Avenue and Ontario Street. The parade proceeds east on Central, continues on Washington Avenue to Hawk Street. The parade is presented by the Tri-County Council Vietnam Era Veterans.
Veterans Day Ceremony at Maplewood Cemetery
Starting at 11 a.m. today (Sunday), there will be a short memorial service at the VFW Cemetery pot at Maplewood Cemetery, at the intersection of Louden Road. and NY-29 in Saratoga Springs. At 1 p.m. there will be a Veterans Day luncheon to follow at the Gurtler Brothers VFW Post 420, 190 Excelsior Ave., Saratoga Springs.
Lake George Community Band Veterans Day Concert
From 3 to 4:30 p.m. today (Sunday) at Glens Falls High School, 190 Quade St., the Lake George Community Band will perform a concert in the school’s auditorium in honor of those who have served. For more info visit lgcb.org.
Bell Toll and Ceremony
At 11 a.m. today (Sunday) there will be a bell toll in remembrance of those that served and sacrificed during World War I, as today marks the centennial of the end of WWI. Following the bell toll, the Gill Room will hold a ceremony at Memorial Park I (Corliss Avenue and Main Street) in Greenwich, which will honor those lost in The Great War. A short history of the park and the 12 men whose memorials reside there will be discussed. The event will run until 12:15 p.m.
Laying of wreath at statue
Today (Sunday) at 10:45 a.m. at the World War I statue at New Scotland and Lake avenues in Albany, representatives of the Irish American Heritage Museum will be laying a wreath. At 11:45, at the museum (370 Broadway), there will be a brunch and short lecture on the experiences of Irish and German Americans in World War I. Visit Irish-US.org or call 518-427-1916