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Veterans Day // She trod Army path paved by others

Retired Master Sgt. Lori Underwood had a good deal of persuading to do when at the tender age of 18 she told her parents that she was planning a career in the military.

But after 20 years in the Army, Underwood is certain she made the right choice.

"I would not be a member of any group I could not be proud of," she said.

Early in her career, Underwood worked for Army intelligence in Germany. Later, her enthusiasm for the career opportunities open to women in the service led her to the job of recruiting both women and men for the Army in the 1960s and '70s during the Vietnam War.

Underwood managed to earn her four-year college degree while attending to all of her duties as a soldier. By the time she received her bachelor's degree, however, she was not eligible for the officer training program because she was nearing retirement.

Underwood's Army education and experience qualified her for a position as an account service representative with Blue Cross of Massachusetts when she retired from the Army. She worked for Blue Cross for 14 years before retiring to Florida.

"I think the stereotypes about women in the service are lessening," she said in a recent interview. Underwood pointed to the equal opportunities for women in almost every branch of the military today.

"During the Persian Gulf War, women accepted every challenge when deployed in Saudi Arabia," she said.

"They have proven themselves capable alongside their male counterparts in every field."

Underwood believes that young women today benefit greatly from the path blazed by women who served in World War II, and that the younger generation needs to hear their stories.

She pointed to the huge contributions made to the World War II effort by many women who went from being housewives to defense workers and members of such groups as the WACS, the WAVES and the SPARS.

Hundreds of thousands of men were freed for duty in battle zones by women who replaced them in administrative, medical and technical positions.

Underwood is well versed in the history of women in the service, from the time of the American Revolution to the present. She said women risked their lives during the Civil War working as spies for both the North and the South; 10,000 women served during World War I in the position of yeoman F (F for female), doing clerical work.

Underwood recalls that nurses served in Bataan and Corregidor during the first tragic battles of World War II in the Pacific, continuing in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and the Philippines. Eleven nurses were captured as prisoners of war in the Philippines and were rescued on the day they were to be executed by the Japanese _ Feb. 23, 1945.

Since moving to Hernando County, Underwood has been able to meet and talk with women veterans of World War II.

"I heard stories of all they had to overcome, and I was thrilled to meet them," she said.

She believes they were pioneers who paved the way for the women of today, who now are full-fledged members of all the armed forces.