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Pitt-Greensburg Veterans Week celebrates women 'breaking barriers' in military

Tribune-Review - 11/2/2023

Nov. 2—The University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg will highlight area women who saw military service in conflicts spanning three-quarters of a century during Veterans Week activities planned Saturday through Nov. 10 at the Hempfield campus.

The theme for the week is "75 years of breaking barriers." It marks the time that has passed since the Women's Armed Services Integration Act and Executive Order 9981 of 1948 allowed women to serve as regular members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps and directed the desegregation of the nation's armed forces.

Among the women who will help campus visitors explore that theme are a World War II Navy veteran, a former Army combat medic and a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot.

All activities are free and open to the public, beginning with a Veterans Breakfast Club gathering from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the Hempfield Room of Chambers Hall.

It's an opportunity for veterans of all eras, while partaking of a free breakfast, to connect with each other and to share the stories of their military service. Veterans' families and others interested in learning about their service experiences are encouraged to attend.

Historian, author and Veterans Breakfast Club founding director Todd DePastino will serve as master of ceremonies for the event, which is supported by premier sponsor Humana. RSVP is requested but not required at

At 11:30 a.m. Monday , the campus will host a wreath ceremony at the flagpole in front of Chambers Hall. It will be led by Aryanna Wagner, an Army veteran who served on the front lines of the Iraq War and is executive director of nonprofit RISE: Veterans, which offers advocacy and support for veterans.

At 6 p.m. Monday, four area female veterans will take part in the panel discussion "Reflections of Service" at the Mary Lou Campana Chapel and Lecture Center.

Panelists include:

—Julia Parsons, 102, of Forest Hills, a graduate of Wilkinsburg High School and Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) who was a World War II code-breaker while serving in the Navy's WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service);

—Marion Center native Toshua Jarrett, who served as an Army combat medic in 2009-2013 and is now chief development officer for the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania;

—Western Pennsylvania native Jackie Bechdel enlisted in the Army Reserves in 2001 and went on to become a Black Hawk pilot, serving as a platoon leader and battle captain while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Keeping secrets

The discussion will be moderated by Dorey Stabile of North Huntingdon, an Army veteran who is a veterans outreach program specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and president of the nonprofit Westmoreland County Veterans of the War on Terror.

Parsons joined the WAVES in 1942. Because she had studied German for two years in high school, she was selected to join a top-secret unit in Washington, D.C., working with one of the first computers to decode encrypted German U-boat messages.

"The war had started and everybody was off to the Army or Navy," said Parsons. "There was nothing for women to do except stay home and knit scarves. Then I read in the paper that the government finally was admitting women into the Navy, and I applied and got it.

"I loved it. It was really exciting."

Parsons was assigned to one of the six-member teams that worked six days a week, using a captured German Enigma code machine in attempts to decipher intercepted U-boat messages. The Enigma had a series of rotors used to either encrypt or decrypt a message, with codes and rotor settings changed regularly by the German military.

"The computer would spit out all possible combinations of those rotors and tell us if we were right in what we thought the message said in German," Parsons said. "Every once in a while we were lucky, and we could read all the (U-boat message) traffic for the day."

Parsons served with the code-breaking unit until the end of the war in Europe. She kept her wartime role to herself until 1997, well after the information was declassified in the 1960s.

"I never told my husband," she told the Trib. "I never told my parents. I never told anyone. I wasn't good at keeping secrets as a kid, but I knew this was important information to keep to myself. It was a top military secret."

Adaptability is key

Bucking traditional notions of male and female roles, Stabile was the sole female member of her power mechanics class in high school and one of three females out of about 30 students in an advanced individual training class when she joined the Army. Though she followed her preference and initially was trained as a vehicle mechanic, Stabile said she was reassigned, based in part on her high test scores, to the role of personnel management and finance specialist in 1993-1996 for a forward support unit at Fort Riley, Kansas.

"They saw in me that I could do the job even though I wasn't trained for it," Stabile said, noting the assignment allowed her to meet more people than she might have working in the motor pool.

"Adaptability is something that's key in the military," she said.

She advises women who are pursuing a career in any male-dominated field to "stick with what you want for a job but, at the end of the day, know you may come up against opposition. Be prepared to defend it."

'An anomaly'

Bechdel, of Beaver, trained with the National Guard in Johnstown.

"I was an anomaly as a female aviator even in the early 2000s, with only two other women in my flight school graduating class," Bechdel said. "It amazes and excites me to see full teams of female pilots leading some of the most prestigious flying teams across the military recently. They are paving the way for little girls everywhere to know that they can sit in that seat one day."

At 6 p.m. on Nov. 8, the documentary "Silver Wings/Flying Dreams: The Complete Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots" will be screened in Village Hall 118. In the film, members of the World War II WASP program relive their experiences as the first female pilots to fly American military aircraft; they ferried aircraft, flew as test and transport pilots, towed targets for anti-aircraft gunnery practice, trained male pilots and tested radio-control aircraft.

Two late members of the WASP unit were Connellsville native Florence Shutsy Reynolds and Frances Fortune Grimes, a native of Deer Park, Md., and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Reynolds designed a flag and other commemorative items for the unit.

Tyshawn Jenkins, an Air National Guard veteran, will discuss "Change of Mission: Life Challenges after Military Service" at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 at the Mary Lou Campana Chapel and Lecture Center.

All veterans, from campus or the larger community, are invited to a veterans luncheon sponsored by Phi Eta Sigma from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.Nov. 10 in the Hempfield Room of Chambers Hall.

Pitt-Greensburg also will recognize Nov. 10 as RED Out Day and invites the public to join in wearing red to "remember everyone deployed."

Visit to learn about ongoing veterans programs and services at Pitt-Greensburg.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff by email at or via Twitter .


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