The Selective Service Act of 1917 officially became law on May 18, 1917. The law gave the United States federal government the authority to raise an army for service in World War I.
Raising that army was accomplished through conscription, where individuals were forced to serve or face penalties. This meant every able-bodied person between certain ages had to enlist in the armed forces. However, women were not subject to this law, and women have never been drafted into U.S. military service.
Fast-forward to February 2019.
U.S. District Judge Gray Miller of the South District of Texas ruled earlier this year that the United States’ all-male draft is unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge Miller stated, “The average woman could conceivably be better suited physically for some of today’s combat positions than the average man, depending on which skills the position required. Combat roles no longer uniformly require sheer size or muscle.”
This outcome still probably has many miles to go in federal court, so right now women don’t have to register for the draft on their 18th birthday as their male counterparts must do.
But even without draft laws applying to women, many of Marshall County’s citizens without a “Y” chromosome readily volunteered to serve in whatever capacity they could be accepted.
Brindlee Mountain has known many patriotic women who have, in the past, raised their right hand and swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. For the most part, women’s early military roles were restricted to those in the medical field as nurses or in clerical positions such as secretaries and clerks. But some remarkable Marshall County women had roles that went far beyond that.
Col. Margaret Clarke
Margaret Geneva Clarke was born June 20, 1915, in South Carolina. She was one of six children born to James Mack Verner and Carrie LeDora Hawkins Clarke.
During the 1920s, the family moved from South Carolina to Arab. On Sept. 1, 1943, Margaret enlisted in the Army. Later that year, she graduated from the Wesley Hospital School of Nursing at Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Throughout her Army career, Clarke would accomplish many firsts as an Army nurse. She was appointed as Chief of Army nurses in Vietnam.
During her service in that southeast Asian country, Clarke was the first women in history to be awarded the Air Medal for her more than 50 helicopter evacuation missions to recover and treat wounded GIs. In Vietnam, women were still barred from serving in any combat position, even though helicopters retrieving wounded from the field were routinely fired upon by the enemy.
For her Vietnam service, Clarke was awarded the Legion of Merit, the first woman to be so honored. In fact, she was the most decorated woman in the Vietnam War.
In 1966 after her Vietnam duty, she was selected as U.S. Army Nurse of the Year while stationed at Ft. McPherson, Ga. Many other honors continued to follow her. Clarke was promoted to colonel just prior to attending as special guest at the inauguration in Montgomery for Lurleen Wallace, the first woman governor in the history of Alabama.
Col. Clarke retired from the Army July 31, 1968, after almost 25 years of service to our country. Clarke lived almost 20 more years before passing away on June 1, 1984, in Arab. She is buried in the Arab Memorial Cemetery along with her parents and all her siblings.
Maj. Inez Couch
Inez Couch, born in Marshall County, was another woman who would serve her country as an Army nurse. She was born to James Preston and Nannie Williams Couch on April 28, 1914. Couch attended Arab public schools and graduated from Arab High School as a member of the class of 1930.
She trained as a nurse and anesthetist at a Talladega hospital, followed by post-graduate training at Cleveland, Ohio, and Rochester, N.Y.
She entered the Army Nurse Corps in February 1945. Couch served in Japan and Korea. In Korea, she not only cared for American servicemen but also United Nations troops.
For her service in Korea, she was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. She also served in Germany, Okinawa and Fort McClellan.
Maj. Couch retired after 20 years of active service and returned home to Arab where she lived with her mother, Nannie Couch. She died July 14, 1999, and was buried in the Arab Memorial Cemetery.
Petty Officer Clare Pendergrast
Betty Clare Pendergrast was born in Huntsville on Feb. 3, 1959, to David Shaw and Marian June Reynolds Pendergrast. Clare’s mother was the sister of well-known Arab dentist, Dr. Julius Davidson Reynolds, better known to friends and patients as J.D. Reynolds.
Clare was a member of the 1977 graduating class of Decatur High School. She joined the Navy in February 1984, and attended boot camp in Orlando, Fla. Her first duty station was the USS Frank Cable AS-40, a submarine tender home ported in Charleston, S.C.
A submarine tender does exactly that. It tends to submarines assigned to it. These tenders provide parts, food, water and fuel to these boats, as well as perform any necessary repairs to equipment and some hull parts.
The Frank Cable was officially commissioned in October 1979 in Seattle, Wash., and in December made her way to Charleston via the Panama Canal. While home ported in Charleston, the tender made various port visits on the east coast and throughout the Caribbean.
With her assignment to the submarine tender, Clare became somewhat of a pioneer, the result of a court ruling that occurred just one year after she graduated from high school.
In 1978, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia had before it a case that would impact women’s ability to serve on Navy ships. That case was known as Owens v. Brown. Senior Judge of this court was John Sirica and he ruled in this case that the U.S. law that banned women in the Navy from being assigned to ships was unconstitutional.
Later that same year, Congress made a change to Title 10 USC Section 6015. This change allowed the Navy to legally assign women to sea duty billets on support and non-combatants. The USS Frank Cable was indeed a support ship and a non-combatant.
In May 1988, the Frank Cable crossed the Atlantic and entered the Mediterranean headed for a six-month deployment at Naval Support Activity La Maddalena, Sardinia (Italy). I could not ascertain if Clare was still onboard the sub tender during that deployment, but according to her sister, Laurie in Louisiana, the Frank Cable was the only duty station she remembered Clare was assigned.
While in the Mediterranean, the tender provided service to the submarines of the U.S. Sixth Fleet assigned to SUBRON (submarine squadron) 22. While there, the Frank Cable provided services to 12 nuclear submarines and one surface ship, all part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.
Finally, in November 1988 the tender and her crew returned to their home port of Charleston.
Clare was honorably discharged from the Navy in June 1989. During her five-year Navy career, she reached paygrade E-5, or petty officer second class.
Either just before or following her discharge, Clare married and eventually moved to Chillicothe, Ohio. Clare and her husband had a child, a daughter, but the couple divorced in 1999.
During her life in Ohio, she was an honor student at Ohio University and a member of the Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society. Unfortunately, in 2000 after a battle with cancer, Clare died at her parents’ home in Arab.
Clare was just 41 years old. She is buried in the Arab Memorial Cemetery near her parents.
Today in the 21st century, U.S. women are still serving in military medical and clerical assignments but also in combat roles previously only held by men. Women are serving as fighter pilots, crew members onboard submarines, and commanding Navy surface combatants and Army infantry units.
And the list goes on. It took us many years to get here but here we are.
These three women are just a small number of those in Marshall County who have served their country. They were not afraid to make any sacrifice to ensure the freedoms of generations to come. It is clear, that commitment to service is not restricted to men.