Eight local women veterans reflect on military careers

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Shawn Nowlin

Submitted photo
Local women veterans, from left to right, Doris Hansel, Vicki Jackson, Sherri Smith, Arlene Tolley, Jody Callen, Orpha Perry, Mary Lou Dennis and Brenda Hale.

The first thing that comes to mind when Vicky Jackson thinks about her 16 years in the Army is how often she worked with people of different backgrounds to accomplish a common goal. The second thing is the many different languages that she learned.

Several women recently gathered at the Salem American Legion Post to share stories and reflect on their military careers. They included, Jackson (Army), Jody Callen (Army), Mary Lou Denis (Army), Arlene Tolley (Air Force), Orpha Perry (Air Force), Sherri Smith (Army), Brenda Hale (Army) and Doris Hansel (Army).

Born in Franklin County in 1947, Mary Lou Denis was 18 when he decided to enlist in the Army. She was active for two years before getting married and moving to New Hampshire. “I made some great friends that I still keep in touch with.  The military was very good for me.  It expanded my knowledge in different religions, food, languages and cultures,” Denis said.

Added Jackson, “I remember that I went with a high school friend to take the entrance exam, and I passed. My friend did not, but I still made the decision to go to the Army. The military taught me to be an independent woman. It also showed me that I could do anything and be the best at everything.”  

Perry has several active military personnel and veterans in her family. Her father served during World War II. Today, she has two nephews serving in the Army with one earning the distinct honor of being a Green Beret.

“My family takes tremendous pride when it comes to honoring our country. I played a small part during the Vietnam era with Operation New Life,” she said. “I helped with the care and processing on Guam of Vietnamese refugees who evacuated from Saigon in the closing days of the war. It was the highlight of my career and life.”

Being in the Army for four years taught Smith plenty of life lessons that she uses to this day: how to respond to urgent situations, being confident in her abilities and understanding that it is ok to sometimes ask for help.

“I chose the Army because I wanted to be on land and learn how to use a variety of weapons and be proficient at shooting rifles. I also was able to choose my job and duty station in the Army,” Perry said. “I was also looking at the Air Force too, but they only promised my choice of duty station or job and I did not want to gamble with a dreaded surprise they picked for me.”

During Tolley’s four years in the Air Force, she got to live in South Korea, Alaska, Guam and Okinawa. In addition to repairing communication, navigation and doppler systems, she also worked with people throughout the United States on a variety of military tasks.

When asked what advice she would give high school students interested in joining the military, Smith said, “Go in as an officer. Read up on military occupational services so you can choose the best job for yourself. If nothing else, pick a MOS that requires the highest security clearance. When you get out, you can be qualified for a very high paying job with the government or overseas as a civilian. Don’t be afraid to take a sick day when necessary and have the doctor document all medical and incidents.”

She added, “keep a paper trail of any incidents while in service and keep a journal.”