Editor's note: Gladys "Bunny" Strong passed away July 7 . She is survived by her husband Richard, their children, and a host of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild.
Poised upright in a chaise in her living room, Gladys “Bunny” Strong rested comfortably while American Legion National Commander Michael Helm sat beside her, gently holding her hand while oxygen flowed through her nostrils. Although the 91-year-old veteran was taken aback by Helm’s impromptu visit to Ludlow, Vt., she knew exactly why he was there – to acknowledge the overlooked, unappreciated service of a veteran that for decades felt unworthy of the title “Legionnaire”.
Helm initially met Strong while campaigning for his current position as national commander. At the time, Strong was a member of the local Legion post’s Auxiliary unit. Although her dates of service make her eligible to join The American Legion, she joined the Auxiliary seven decades ago and didn’t think twice about her eligibility for Legion membership. Intrigued by her service and decision, Helm said her story resonated with him and captured a special place in his heart.
“During our conversation, it came about that she is a Marine and eligible for membership in The American Legion, but she was not allowed to become a member,” Helm said. “That’s when I told her that she would be a member of the organization. She told me that she wouldn’t be, but it turns out this commander was right.”
Adamant about remaining in the Auxiliary instead of becoming a Legionnaire, Strong continued to support her husband and their local Legion post. Determined to help Strong attain the respect she deserves as a veteran eligible to join the Legion, Helm reached out to Ned Bowen, commander of Post 36, and Post Adjutant Linda Perham to facilitate Strong’s induction into the Legion.
During her July 2 visit with Helm, Strong shared snippets of her service with the national commander; Verna Jones, the executive director of the Legion’s Washington office; and Denise Rohan, chairman of the Legion’s Veterans Employment & Education Commission.
Needing a change of scenery, Strong said she quit her job at the local dentist’s office and joined the service. Little did she know, Strong and several other female Marines would become cooks stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. After completing a stateside tour with the Marine Corps during World War II, Strong returned home to Vermont to resume the life she once put on hold.
Gladys and her husband Richard, who is also a World War II veteran, raised children together while also looking for ways to stay active in the community. Richard became a Legionnaire and joined Ballard-Hobart Post 36. However, the path to joining the Legion was a different story for his wife. Experiencing first-hand the all-male stigma certain Legion posts upheld at the time, the Marine Corps veteran said she did not let that deter her from joining the Auxiliary. Strong, a past unit president, said she preferred to be around the women in the Auxiliary and enjoyed going to their meetings.
“The club itself didn’t welcome women,” said Strong’s daughter Jean, who recalled her parents spending a great deal of time at the post. “They couldn’t go in the bar or attend official meetings. It was that way for a long time. I remember my mother saying she didn’t want to take away from my father’s service. He served in Germany and she didn’t. She felt like her service as a cook in the Marines didn’t hold the same weight. She felt like she didn’t really serve.”
Inspired by her service both in the Marine Corps and after, members of Post 36 rallied together to make Strong a Legionnaire. Taking her by surprise, the members presented Strong with an official membership card during the Department of Vermont’s convention in June.
As she clutched a cap pin given to her by Rohan, she ran her fingers across the engrained words “women proudly served.” As she looked down at the pin, Strong reminisced about her time in the service and the journey to becoming a Legionnaire. “It can be lonesome, especially when you don’t get what you want,” she said.
Helm assured Strong that great progress has been made over the years throughout the Legion to include women veterans. He said he expects Legionnaires to continue to embrace women veterans so future generations will not have to endure the same struggles that faced Strong and so many others once they returned from proudly serving.
Although Strong was unable to visit the post after her visit with the national commander, the post hosted a women veterans forum and reception in her honor. During the forum, veterans engaged special guest facilitators Jones, Rohan and Perham. During the event, Helm weighed in, challenging Legionnaires to honor the service and sacrifice of all veterans, including female Legionnaires and women veterans that are Auxiliary members.
“I am very proud to say that we have numerous female veterans serving in virtually every capacity of the Legion – from chairmen of commissions to national staff and executive directors – our female veteran population continues to grow,” Helm said. “There are women in the Legion – ones that were welcomed and ones that weren’t necessarily welcomed – that have stepped forward and taken their rightful place. They are not afraid to stand tall in whatever position it is that they hold within the organization. We need to make sure that we are reaching out to all of our women veterans and making them feel welcome.”