Women's History Month: Retiree Helps Pave Way for Female Soldiers
By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Mar. 24, 2006 When Kasha Zilka went through Army basic training, she never touched a weapon, trained in the field, or dropped facedown to pound out push-ups.
Kasha Zilka helps present an award to Milburn Stone, also known as "Doc" from the television series "Gunsmoke," while serving on recruiting duty in 1969. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Yet, she was expected to perform equal to or better than her male counterparts -- not an easy task in a skirt and blouse more suited for an afternoon tea than a day in the field.
But in 1967, the 18-year-old private didn't waste any time worrying about women's equality; she was too busy trying to succeed in a world dominated by men.
"Today, the military is probably one of the best equal opportunity employers in the United States," said Zilka, who would eventually achieve the rank of sergeant major. "But it hasn't always been that way."
As one of 15 children in her family in rural Minnesota, Zilka was more focused on God than country. After graduating from high school at age 17, she believed she had a calling to become a nun. "A wise nun said I was too young and needed to see more of the world," she said. "I decided to go to college, but the financial means wasn't there for me to go."
She decided to follow in her father's and two older brothers' footsteps and join the Army, which offered the GI Bill for college tuition.
The requirements to join were a bit more challenging for Zilka than for the men in her family. Along with being a high school graduate, women could not be married or pregnant, and mental health and police checks were conducted in every state the applicant had resided in for the past 10 years. Two moving traffic violations disqualified an applicant. Additionally, women had to pass testing with a minimum score 32 points higher than the male minimum.
The stringent enlistment standards were designed by leadership to ensure the Army "accepted as few risks as possible in mental, physical and moral qualifications," according to "The Women's Army Corps, 1945-1978" by Bettie J. Morden.
Zilka sailed through the requirements and became one of 9,700 women in the Women's Army Corps. After graduating from basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., she attended technical training for social work procedures at Fort Sam Houston, one of two women in a class of 40 men. "I remember walking down the sidewalk at Fort Sam to the jeers of 'quack quack,' (a play on the word WAC) and listening to the off color 'Jody' calls of the special forces when they ran by the WAC barracks every morning," she said.
Zilka's first assignment was to Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., where she was met with a less-than-enthusiastic welcome. "I was told they had a woman working there before but she didn't work out and I probably wouldn't work out, but I could assume the duties anyway," Zilka said.
The comment fueled Zilka's desire to succeed. She was assigned to a psychiatrist on a locked ward to do intake interviews on newly admitted patients, almost all from Vietnam. She was asked to wear a doctor's white coat because "it was felt the patients would respect the authority the garment represented," she said.
A female captain and sergeant first class supervised Zilka. "Sergeant first class was the highest (enlisted) rank I'd been exposed to; I didn't believe women could go any higher."
Zilka found positive female role models within her unit and was praised for her work but still found it difficult to be accepted as a "contributing, effective member," she said. "Women were often labeled as a nymphomaniac, lesbian, husband hunter, or someone's ugly sister. We were judged by our looks rather than our capabilities."
Dating was nearly impossible, Zilka said. "If you turned down a man, you would be labeled a lesbian. The problem was being choosy without getting labeled."
Zilka told of a male brigadier general who wrote a WAC colonel in 1964 to ask for a female officer and NCO who could organize a Women's Army Corps in the Republic of Vietnam. He spelled out his prerequisites in detail, requesting a WAC officer who was "extremely intelligent, an extrovert and beautiful. The NCO should have the same qualities, plus be able to type."
The standards may have been high for female soldiers, but the benefits were sorely lacking. Women were not entitled to VA benefits or a military funeral; spouses and children of WAC members did not receive medical benefits, on-base family housing or commissary and exchange privileges; women could not marry without a commander's approval; and pregnancy or an abortion resulted in an immediate discharge.
Despite the odds, Zilka progressed through the years, from recruiting duty to noncommissioned officer in charge of psychology services at Fitzsimmons. She was the first woman on the Army Medical Department Senior Enlisted Advisory Council and the first woman in charge of the Health Service Division at Personnel Command, in Alexandria, Va. She retired in 1997 after a 30-year career.
Throughout the years, she became an eyewitness to the evolution of equality in the military. "There have been so many changes since my entry into the military," she said.
The Gulf War and operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom were particularly significant in showing the changing role of women in the military, she said.
"We are no longer medics and typists serving in rear areas; there were 41,000 women in Operation Desert Storm and 11,000 serving in Iraq working as doctors, nurses, pilots, medics, mechanics, truck drivers, clerks, and in a host of other specialties. OIF and OEF show that America is ready for Army women, all of whom volunteered, to serve throughout the Army and not be excluded from combat jobs.
"Now, when we think of soldiers we don't visualize only young men," Zilka said. "We will remember the young women who also dedicate their time, talent and their very lives protecting our nation."
Although retired, Zilka hasn't stopped being an impetus for change. She shares her experiences with others as a speaker at various luncheons and ceremonies throughout the year. She also works for the Order of Military Medical Merit, a private organization dedicated to recognizing excellence and promoting fellowship and esprit de corps among Army medical personnel, and is a volunteer at the Army Medical Department Museum.
(Elaine Wilson is assigned to the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)