Articles tagged with: culture

“I’ll Donate to That!” In Memorium, Larry Rivkin WWII Veteran and Friend

“I’ll Donate to That!” In Memorium, Larry Rivkin WWII Veteran and Friend

Larry devoted his own safety and future to salvage lives by flying extremely dangerous covert missions over occupied France during WWII. Decades later on this Memorial Day, that spirit is still there and making that caring difference.

Years back when I was first struggling in my fundraising role to get RIP Medical Debt off the ground, I was having lunch in NYC with a good friend and fellow veteran (me Navy, and Larry, Army Air Force) and mentioned my fledgling organization’s efforts to bring medical debt relief to Americans.

Larry put his knife and fork down, pushed back his chair, and declared for the restaurant to hear, “I’ll donate to that!” And he did, giving me heart and spurring me on. (My original Huffington Post article about this meeting is here.)

He was then at the age of 95, this Captain and WWII B-24 Bombardier/Navigator many times medaled (Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, and five Bronze Stars). He became furious when he later learned that millions of dollars annually in unpayable medical debt were being run up by Veterans and owing through the VA and not available for forgiveness. 

Like most Americans, myself included, Larry was under the impression that our country takes care of its returning warriors. Especially, their medical needs whether service-connected or not. They are not. Not nearly. Not enough. 

It’s About Those “Hoops” Needing to be Jumped Through

For example, Veterans who run up medical bills in civilian hospital emergency rooms and use ambulance services not “pre-authorized” end up being responsible for those expenses. There are circumstances where the VA will help (their “Hardship Program”) relieve some or part of that debt, but with conditions that cause as much hardship and stress as the debt itself.

There are many “If’s” and “when’s” that need to be met to get “free” healthcare, such as having a recent change in income due to job loss or income reduction or extreme situations for which fewer and fewer applicants qualify. Starting with, a Veteran must be currently enrolled in the VA Medical, possibly its medical care hardship program, and receiving healthcare benefits.

What is the “real world” effect? Veterans, currently estimated at 16.5 million or 6.4% of our nation’s population, are eligible for VA services. Only nine million, less than 50% of that group, are actually enrolled. Almost three-quarters of our Veterans will never see more than limited help. If any. 

Is this truly the best way to say, “Thank you for your service?”

We’ve lost Larry – The Problem is Still Here – And I am More Focused

Larry’s first question for me, whenever we met socially, was “How are we doing?” and taking great joy in each and every dollar that RIP continued to abolish. Almost two years ago on August 16, 2021 we lost Larry at the age of 100+. By then, the fledgling charity he helped lift off the runway had already reached over $1B in medical debt relief.

Today, that total is $8.6B, and 5.4M Americans no longer suffer from at least a portion of their medical bills. Not nearly enough of those are identifiable as Veterans.

I retired to RIP’s Board in late 2020 to found Let’s Rethink This (LRT) in early 2021 to concentrate on catching the VA’s attention and cause (prod? annoy?) this behemoth into releasing the $6B – BILLION – in Veteran medical debt believed to be on their books for total and complete forgiveness. 

The mechanism I chose is a Public Benefit “B” Corp – LRT – so that Veteran problems other than medical debt could be addressed – most notably Veteran suicides which researchers say are now running at 44 per day. PER DAY! 

An amazing team of vets and Veteran advocates heard of my efforts and are now banded together to set in motion a national campaign called Veteran Mission Possible (VMP) to address these two major ills…and a few more needing America’s attention.

The need to fund this ambitious effort is clear and compelling. VMP/LRT has the goods. We have an early track record and even a first-ever Veteran Medical Debt Summit under our belt. We have an awesome “Impact Awareness” machine in our recent media entry Rethinking Heroes (RH). We are gaining traction and attracting strong allies. 

We just don’t have Larry here to help.

A fundraiser (razr) is now in effect. You are invited to visit and contribute.

Support Veteran Mission Possible Here

Those of you who would like to do that and more, visit and join VMP and surround yourself with like-minded people who are action-oriented when it comes to helping our vets. 

The fundraising goal is $75,000. As LRT is a “B” Corp and not a charity, contributions however large or small are not tax deductible. However, they can serve as a marketing or business write-off for charities or corporations who become our patrons or partners. Write for those details: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This is a wonderful opportunity to trade in that somewhat obligatory phrase, “Thank you for your service” into instead “Let me take a burden off your back.” 

Anything else need rethinking?

My Long Road to Seeing Veteran Medical Debt Owed Through the VA Forgiven

Five Years Later My Arrival is Getting Closer

My Long Road to Seeing Veteran Medical Debt Owed Through the VA Forgiven

In early January 2018 I wrote a Huffington Post piece about my previous November’s experience in marching in NYC’s famed Veteran’s Day Parade – and my discomfort with parade goers who shook my hand saying, “Thank you for your service.” They mean well and the sentiments are authentic, but a key element was missing – offering actual help. Please visit with some of my history and tell me if you agree.

Support Veteran Mission Possible

2018’s Replacement for “Thank You for Your Service” – Actually Helping Veterans by Relieving Them of Unpayable Medical Debt (as published in Huffington Post)

For the first time in 50+ years I found myself in a Navy uniform and marching in a Veterans Day Parade this past November’s in NYC alongside a retired Army Colonel and a Vietnam Sergeant veteran (not shown above). While wearing that uniform, I was hearing someone for the first time say, “Thank you for your service.” I appreciated this acknowledgement of the years I served so many decades ago as a Navy journalist, but received it with mixed emotions.

I’ll tell you why.

On July 25, 2014, my long-time partner and friend in the collections industry, Craig Antico, and I decided to establish ourselves as a 501(C)(3) non-profit called RIP Medical Debt. Our purpose, inspired by Occupy Wall Street’s Rolling Jubilee, was to provide a tax-deductible way for Americans to help us locate, buy and then forgive unpaid medical debt incurred by individuals and families.

Along the way, we began to notice that a surprising percentage of the people whose debt we were abolishing were active duty military and veterans. Like many Americans (even myself as a veteran), I believed that America takes care of the medical needs of the men and women who have served our country – many of whom have come back from several deployments with severe disabilities. Of course, we would take care of them in return.

When you factor in the qualifications and hoops that a military person has to jump through to receive medical care at the VA – or off-site healthcare at non-military hospitals and emergency transport – you can only shake your head in wonderment.

A current example – Veteran Alpha

RIP was recently notified of a 73-year-old Army veteran and his wife (let’s call him “Veteran Alpha”) who is in singular need of help in meeting his medical debt obligations.

The problem began on Veterans Day 2016, when Veteran Alpha required emergency heart-bypass surgery. The local hospital, where he had gone into cardiac arrest, advised the largest VA medical center in their area of his precarious condition only to be told that they would send an ambulance – from over 75 miles away – to pick him up and transport him back to that facility.

The hospital staff put Veteran Alpha on the phone, who then groggily told the VA person that he was being prepped for surgery. End of call.

Since that time, Veteran Alpha’s finances have been swamped with medical bills that the VA has declined to pay because he had “refused emergency transport.” The hospital surgery was $180,000, of which Medicare paid about 80%. The hospital pursued the balance, requiring Veteran Alpha to deplete their $7,000 savings account and taking out a $7,000 loan from the Navy Federal Credit Union on which they are making monthly payments.

Dependent on his 100% service related disability payments, the task of managing out-of-pocket costs and the medical loan are putting the couple in jeopardy of losing their home.

This is a better way to say, “thank you for your service”

RIP depends on donor funds to purchases debt portfolios in bulk and is not designed to target individuals in debt at this point (we’re working on that). However, with help from other military activists, non-profits and highly motivated Americans we are vigorously taking up causes as personal as this.

We can tell you from our own experience that Americans are incredibly giving – once they are made aware of a particular need that deserves their attention. Our own growth (graph below) is an example of that public outpouring of donations as our work attracted more and more attention.

RIP Medical Debt Forgiven 2015 - 2017

This year, 2018, it is our intention to abolish $50 million in veteran debt in a #NoVetMedDebt campaign.So, here’s to the allies with whom RIP is joining forces. Whether it be “Semper Fi,” Anchors Aweigh, “Up We Go” or simply “Take That Hill,” we know that we have an important mission and one that we will complete with honor.

RIP is no stranger to painful stories of people caught up in a system that seems uncaring and even heartless. And Veteran Alpha’s situation is shocking only in that it is so ordinary.

As a result or my own increasing awareness, what had started as my blogging occasionally about veterans issues (“I’ll Donate to That!’) and the unconscionable burden of medical debt we have placed on our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors in uniform (“There’s a Billion Dollar Burden of Medical Debt”) it is now our charity’s intention to partner with veterans organizations to collectively right these significant wrongs.

The most recent fruit of these efforts was a mini-summit to address the problem held in December at Fordham University.

This year, 2018, it is our intention to abolish $50 in veteran medical debt alone in a #NoVetMedDebt campaign. So, here’s to the allies with whom RIP is joining forces. Whether it be “Semper Fi,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “Up We Go” or simply “Take That Hill,” we know that we have an important mission and one that we and our military charity and hospital partners will complete with honor.

It will be a long battle against this financial nemesis, but the outcome is clear: we will leave no man or woman behind.

Support Veteran Mission Possible

Marijuana Research for Veterans’ Ailments Stumbles in Senate

Marijuana Research for Veterans’ Ailments Stumbles in Senate

The Senate, in a rare move, considered - but ultimately opted against - whether to back cannabis research at the Veterans Affairs Department for generations of former troops who suffer from trauma, stress, chronic pain, and opioid addiction.

Bipartisan legislation (S. 326), written by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), failed on a procedural vote in the Senate Wednesday, even as the chamber is thawing to the idea of green-lighting federal cannabis research and use after years of pressure from veterans organizations and marijuana advocates.

“By blocking consideration of a bill that passed unanimously out of committee two months ago, a group of Republicans today prioritized partisan politics over providing our nation’s veterans their hard-earned benefits and care,” Tester said in a statement.

‘Work Like Hell’

The vote comes on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) promise last week to “work like hell” to advance cannabis law changes and federal legalization. The vote’s 57-42 tally fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure. Schumer on Wednesday changed his vote to oppose the bill so that under Senate rules he could bring up the vote again in the future.

Eight Republican senators joined Democrats in supporting the legislation: Veterans’ Affairs Committee members Jerry Moran (Kansas), Bill Cassidy (La.), Mike Rounds (S.D.), and Dan Sullivan (Alaska); moderates Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska); and both of Missouri’s senators Josh Hawley and Eric Schmitt.

Wednesday’s vote was the first in a series of procedural moves necessary to get the legislation to final passage. Lawmakers were expected to use the cannabis bill as a vehicle to pass a broader, bipartisan package of changes to veterans policy, starting with a substitute amendment fromTester. Republicans blocked the bill because they wanted “more assurances” from Democratic leadership on the amendment process, Moran said.

The cannabis provisions aren’t without opponents: Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) planned to offer an amendment stripping the language, according to a spokesperson. It also remains to be seen whether such a measure could advance in the House, now Republican-led and skewing against marijuana use.

Marijuana is labeled a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. That means it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Senators are also negotiating legislation known as the Safe Banking Act, which would allow financial institutions to legally exchange funds for legitimate marijuana businesses without running afoul of federal prohibitions. The Senate last year by voice vote passed legislation making it easier for researchers and manufacturers to study marijuana, the first time Congress had passed a standalone measure increasing access to the drug.

Study and Trials

Tester’s committee in February advanced his legislation, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2023, behind closed doors. The bill would direct the VA to study the effects of cannabis on veterans who are enrolled in the VA health care system and have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both legs during her military service in Iraq, also is a cosponsor.

The bill would require the VA to conduct an observational, 18-month study on the effects of cannabis on veterans’ health outcomes, then report the results to Congress and address whether it can conduct clinical trials.

The trials would look into how cannabis can help with certain ailments and examine the effects of marijuana in different forms, potency, and methods of administration. The legislation would also expand research into other factors related to veterans’ health, such as improvements to mood, social functioning, impacts on other substance use, and changes to overall quality of life.

Both the VA and the Food and Drug Administration are conducting research on cannabis, and Tester’s bill would ensure the VA meets existing guidelines for such research. The legislation also seeks to improve reporting requirements and includes provisions to protect all participants in both the large-scale study and clinical trials from adverse action from the VA.

‘Dragging Their Feet’

Veterans’ service organizations, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, are supporting and advocating for Tester’s bill. They say the VA has been too slow in researching the medical benefits of cannabis.

“They’ve been dragging their feet,” Patrick Murray, the national legislative director at Veterans of Foreign Wars, said about the VA during a committee hearing earlier this year.

In the House, Reps. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) and Jack Bergman (R-Mich) introduced companion legislation (H.R. 1003). A previous version of the bill passed the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2021.

State Legalization

As of this month, 38 states, three territories and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, VA doctors can’t prescribe marijuana even in the states where it is legal, because at the federal level it isn’t.

“It’s an issue that shouldn’t be that controversial,” Sullivan said in a hallway interview Tuesday. “When you talk to veterans, a lot of them just want the information on what this potentially can do for them, versus, like, opioids which we know doesn’t always end well for veterans.”

The National Academy of Sciences in a 2017 study found “conclusive or substantial” evidence that cannabis is effective in the treatment of chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and vomiting and spasms from multiple sclerosis.

The study also found “moderate evidence” that marijuana can improve sleep for those with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis, and is helpful in treating chronic pain problems, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders.

(Updates throughout with Senate vote failing.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Zach C. Cohen in Washington at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Anna Yukhananov at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Angela Greiling Keane at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article was origianlly published at Bloomberg Law by Roxana Tiron and Zach C. Cohen.

The Ripples of War Are Only Beginning to Spread. Is America Ready?

The Ripples of War Are Only Beginning to Spread. Is America Ready?

Drop a pebble into a pond and, after the initial splash, ripples spread across the water. It’s a familiar image, one we know so intuitively that everyone understands immediately what you mean by the phrase “ripple effect.” Yet, even when the pebble is a boulder, and the splash soaks us, we may not fully grasp how far the ripples will spread—or for how long.

On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. I crossed the berm two days later as part of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), 26 years old and full of equal parts naivete and cynicism. The war already seemed unjustified to me, but I felt deep loyalty to my fellow troops, and some measure of excitement at what was to come. If the waiting place is, as Dr. Seuss says, the worst place to be, I’d rather have been at war than sitting around Camp Udairi.

Kayla Williams crossed the berm two days after the March 20, 2003 invasion of Iraq as part of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Photo courtesy of the author.

Kayla Williams crossed the berm two days after the March 20, 2003 invasion of Iraq as part of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Photo courtesy of the author.

During my deployment, I went on combat foot patrols with the infantry in Baghdad, got bored out of my mind on Mount Sinjar, endured chronic sexual harassment, and came home feeling like America was a foreign land after a year in the Middle East. In Iraq, I also met the man who became my husband.

In retrospect, my book about his injury and our relationship was an effort to tell myself that the ripples had stopped spreading. We coped with his traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, learned to navigate the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and advocated for improvements to systems and services. I wanted a nice tidy narrative arc. I wanted a happy ending—or at least a hopeful beginning for the rest of our lives. I wanted to box up the war and put it away. We had two children and a bright future. Let the pebble sink as the waters stilled.

But sometimes the ripple becomes a wave that threatens to sink the whole boat. PTSD, I learned, can be chronic and episodic. Brian had good weeks, months, years—but they were never permanent. He drank, sometimes heavily, when times were bad. Eventually, I reached a breaking point. I decided the status quo could not endure.

On Aug. 24, 2018, I took the metro back from work. Walking home from the station, I saw emergency vehicles in front of my house. Heart pounding, I walked inside. Brian sat in a chair by the door, where a paramedic assessed him. My husband was shirtless, covered in sweat, and confused. When I asked where our children were, he replied, “Children?”

I sprinted through the house. Our two children were nowhere to be found. I returned to him and asked, louder, “Where are our kids?!” He looked baffled. From the door, a tiny, nervous voice, our neighbor: “I have your kids.”

When I stepped outside, she explained that my daughter had run up to her crying, saying her daddy fell down and couldn’t talk. I got all the information I could, staying composed and focused, and asked if the kids could stay at her place while we sorted this out. My neighbor was sobbing as I reassured her repeatedly that she did the right thing, that she was doing a great job.
Kayla Williams and husband Brian in 2013. The two met while deployed to Iraq in 2003. Photo courtesy of the author.
Kayla Williams and husband Brian in 2013. The two met while deployed to Iraq in 2003. Photo courtesy of the author.

“How are you so calm?” she asked me. What else could I do? I wondered to myself. Was there any other choice? Out loud, almost automatically, I told her, “It’s from being in the military.”

My assumption was that Brian had had an anxiety attack, hyperventilated, and passed out. With PTSD, panic attacks were, for him, not uncommon. But the paramedic was concerned about how high his pulse and blood pressure were, as well as his ongoing confusion, so he was transported to the ER by ambulance, while I followed in my car.

After a couple of hours of waiting to be seen in the emergency room, Brian mentioned a pain in his shoulder. Given how long it took for the ache to begin, I guessed it was just bruised from his fall. Still, he asked the doctor for an X-ray. After what seemed like a further interminable wait, we learned he had had a seizure and had broken his collarbone when he fell.

There is a part of me that wants to distance myself from all of this by reverting to the safety of clinical terms. I want to revise these paragraphs and tell you I came home that day and my husband was diaphoretic and postictal. These words—dense, precise, diagnostic—come easier than remembering the specifics of my daughter retelling the story of daddy screaming and falling down in front of her for weeks as she worked through her own trauma. I want to write, of my husband, “He had been struggling for years with comorbid PTSD, major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, and TBI,” rather than ever admit the terror I felt during specific incidents, the embarrassment when the police came, the shame of pretending everything was fine when it definitively was not.

In the warped way that life sometimes unfolds, the horror of this incident ended up saving our marriage. Perhaps the ripples, now waves, had ricocheted off a rock—rather than swamping our tiny boat, they had pushed it away from the rapids. After the civilian ER doctor put Brian on an anticonvulsant known to cause suicidality, his Defense Department neurologist prescribed him a different anticonvulsant that was also a mood stabilizer. Things changed dramatically. What had been wild and frightening swings from sadness to rage settled into normal currents of emotion. When the doctor told him alcohol “reduced his seizure threshold,” Brian quit drinking. Sobriety became its own salve.

Time passed, the ripples spread. Even after 15 years. It had not occurred to me, when I walked into our house in 2018, that Brian could have had a seizure, because it had been 15 years since shrapnel gouged a trough in his brain just below the skull. After it happened, in 2003, providers had warned us about the risk of seizures post-TBI. But it had been 15 years without one.

Kayla Williams and husband, Brian, on their wedding day in 2005. Photo courtesy of the author.

For years, I had tried to convince myself that the ripples had been contained—that they had not spread beyond his parents, me, the Defense Department, and VA. Then, suddenly, our county had to send paramedics into our home. Our neighbors had to help run errands, since the state (rightly) banned Brian from driving for six months, until a doctor could affirm that his seizures were controlled by medication and it was safe for him to drive again. Our school system needed to provide counselors for our children. My employer had to give me extra time off work to drive him to medical appointments.

There are now more than 1.9 million U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 50,000 of us were physically injured. Around 15% have experienced PTSD. And perhaps all of us were exposed to burn pits and other toxins, as were an untold number of Iraqis. The long-term impacts of the war on frontline civilians and third-country nationals have barely been considered. I am just telling you our story, my husband’s and mine. Ours is but a tiny ripple, from a single pebble, in an ocean.

My generation has benefited tremendously from Vietnam veterans, who fought like hell to get PTSD recognized. Because of their tenacity, we finally have a language to describe, and evidence-informed treatments to manage, the psychological effects of the trauma of war. And like Iraq veterans, Vietnam veterans also struggled for decades to get recognition of the impacts Agent Orange had on their health, of its risks to their children. After we started coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, they swore, “Never again,” and fought alongside us for a swifter and better response to our own toxic exposures.

This advocacy recently led to passage of the PACT Act, which adds a dozen different cancers and another dozen illnesses to the list of health conditions VA assumes (or “presumes”) to be caused by exposure to toxic substances for all who deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other qualifying locations after 9/11 or during the first Gulf War—as well as adding new conditions to the list of illnesses assumed to be linked to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam veterans. VA has already screened more than a million veterans under the new program, hiring 2,000 new disability claims processors and additional health care providers to manage the influx of new patients and claims.

Brian Williams, left, with his neurosurgeon, Dr. Rocco Armonda, in 2012. Brian, an Iraq War veteran, struggled for years with PTSD, depression, and TBI. Photo courtesy of the author.
Brian Williams, left, with his neurosurgeon, Dr. Rocco Armonda, in 2012. Brian, an Iraq War veteran, struggled for years with PTSD, depression, and TBI. Photo courtesy of the author.

As a veteran and a caregiver, I am profoundly grateful to all who advocated for this expansion—even while, as a taxpayer, I blanch a bit at the projected price tag of $152 billion over the next 10 years for disability compensation alone. And I know the PACT act may still not capture all conditions. Cancers often take decades to develop. The potential epigenetic effects of our exposure, passed on to our children and grandchildren, may take generations to identify.

The ripples may yet become waves: PTSD has been linked to heart disease; TBIs are associated with dementia; caregivers are at increased risk of hypertension, reduced sleep, and mental health problems.

And the ripples from this 20-year-old war will long outlive me, spreading for many decades to come. In 2020, Irene Triplett died, age 90, the last surviving dependent of a Civil War veteran receiving a pension, 155 years after that conflict ended. Life expectancy has only increased since the Civil War ended in 1865, or since she was born, in 1930. Brown University’s Costs of War project estimates $2.2 trillion in federal obligations for post-9/11 veterans’ care over the next 30 years alone—this number does not include costs that cities, counties, and states bear as well.

When we project the costs of war into the future, we must imagine these collective costs, these ripples, that will continue spreading for at least another 155 years. It is daunting to imagine that somewhere among the cohort of Iraq War veterans is likely a man who will father a child well into his old age, who will live for many years, and that there could be another, similar headline to that about Triplett’s passing, in the year 2166 or beyond.

As the anniversary of the Iraq War approached, and of the day I crossed the berm two days later, I have not been looking back to the start of the war, but forward—to where the ripples are likely to go. What I’ve come to realize is this: They’ve only just begun to spread

This War Horse reflection was edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Headlines are by Abbie Bennett.

By Kayla Williams. Kayla Williams served as a sergeant and Arabic linguist in the Army from 2000-2005, including a deployment to Iraq from 2003-2004. She now lives in Virginia with her husband and two children and works as a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She’s the author of two nonfiction books, Love My Rifle More Than You and Plenty of Time When We Get Home. Williams is a 2018 War Horse Fellow.

The Hidden History of the First Black Women to Serve in the U.S. Navy

The Golden Fourteen were largely forgotten—but a few veterans and descendants could change that.

The Hidden History of the First Black Women to Serve in the U.S. Navy

When Jerri Bell first wrote about the Golden Fourteen, their story only took up a sentence. These 14 Black women were the first to serve in the U.S. Navy, and Bell, a former naval officer and historian with the Veteran’s Writing Project, included them in a book about women’s contributions in every American war, co-written with a former Marine. But even after the book was published, Bell couldn’t get their story out of her head.

“It made me kind of mad,” Bell says. “Here are these women, and they were the first! But I think there was also a general attitude at the time that the accomplishments of women were not a big deal. Women were not going to brag.”

Bell was one of a few researchers who have been able to track down documents that acknowledge the lives and work of these Black women. She knew that during World War I, the Fourteen had somehow found employment in the muster roll unit of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., under officer John T. Risher. One was Risher’s sister-in-law and distant cousin, Armelda Hattie Greene.

The Golden Fourteen worked as yeomen and were tasked with handling administrative and clerical work. They had access to official military records, including the work assignments and locations of sailors. At the time, Black men who enlisted in the Navy could only work as messmen, stewards, or in the engine room, shoveling coal into the furnace. They performed menial labor and weren’t given opportunities to rise in rank.

The Golden Fourteen tackled administrative and clerical work. Kelly Miller’s History of the World War for Human Rights

Bell wasn’t surprised to learn about the barriers faced by service members of color. She knew that Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy at the time, was a documented white supremacist with ties to the Wilmington Massacre, in which a white mob overthrew a local Reconstruction-era government and murdered Black residents. During the First World War, the U.S. Navy maintained the status quo of racism that continued long after. Many Black service members were also targeted by white mobs after the war.

What was surprising was that a legal technicality had paved the way for Black women to work for the Navy more than a century ago. A shortage of clerical workers led then-president Woodrow Wilson to pass the Naval Reserve Act of 1916, which asked for “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful services for coastal defense.” The Golden Fourteen were part of a larger group of over 11,000 women, almost all of them white, who were able to join the navy as yeomanettes, the title given to female yeomen.

Of the few archival records that exist of the Golden Fourteen, one thing is clear: In a period when stepping out of line could have violent repercussions for Black women, they worked without drawing attention to themselves.

“This is quite a novel experiment,” wrote the sociologist Kelly Miller in The History of the World War for Human Rights, published in 1919. “As it is the first time in the history of the navy of the United States that colored women have been employed in any clerical capacity … It was reserved to young colored women to invade successfully the yeoman branch, hereby establishing a precedent.”

Bell’s fascination with the Golden Fourteen only deepened. She is now writing a book about them, and has spent more than four and a half years, as well as thousands of dollars, collecting archival materials. She’s waited patiently to get military and civilian personnel records from the National Archives, which can often take years, and has combed through historical accounts that have not been digitized. She’s looked at photos and spoken with the last living descendant of the Risher family, who says that his aunt, Greene, never spoke of her naval service.

The memory keepers who tell the story of the Golden Fourteen are almost all veterans. Researchers like Bell have the personal connection and the professional knowledge to recover what fragments remain. She feels a powerful responsibility, to the point that she missed the first deadline for her manuscript nine months ago. Because she is telling a story that has been so thoroughly forgotten—and arguably erased—she wants her research to be truly comprehensive. “I just discovered some documents that I need to physically go to another state to get access to,” Bell says. “I couldn’t turn in the manuscript before. I know I owe these women more than that.”

In terms of race and sex, the Golden Fourteen were anomalies in the Navy.

There is one other place where stories of the Golden Fourteen have been passed down: in family histories. When Tracey L. Brown was 10 years old, she looked through her family photo album and saw a light-skinned woman she didn’t recognize. Her grandmother, Nan, told her that the woman with the blonde hair and hazel eyes was Brown’s great-grandmother, Ruth Ann Welborn. Welborn was one of the Golden Fourteen. Though she seemed to pass as white, she, like Brown, was African-American.

“I had known that she was one of very few Black women there,” Brown says. “But I didn’t know that there had been 14—I wasn’t expecting that many. I remember hearing about that, as a child, that there was some sort of scheme in how they were even able to enlist. I know it wasn’t simple.”

Although Brown grew up understanding who her great-grandmother had been, she didn’t grasp the magnitude of what Welborn and the other women had done until she was much older. Now a practicing attorney in a New York law firm, Brown started to dig deeper after her father, Ronald H. Brown, who had served as Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton, died in 1996. In her grief, she decided to write a memoir about him. “It was sort of the perfect storm,” Brown says. “I had just lost him, so I was really committed to telling his story.”

Brown talked to friends, family, and even President Clinton himself. After interviews with her grandmother, she finally began to unearth more about Ruth Welborn. “It was so exciting to even begin pursuing these stories,” Brown says. “There have been so many stories that have been lost in our community, and it was nice to be able to have a little slice.”

Ruth was the daughter of Walter Welborn, the son of a white merchant, Johnson W. Welborn, and a woman he enslaved at his house in Clinton, Mississippi, whose name and date of birth remain unknown. In 1863, during the chaos of conscription riots that followed the Emancipation Proclamation, Walter and his brother Eugene escaped from the biological father who had enslaved them. According to Brown’s memoir, their mother dressed them in Confederate uniforms, and perhaps thanks to the fair skin they had inherited, they were able to escape onto a train to Washington.

In Washington, Walter Welborn was a free man, and he married Elexine Beckley, who came from a well-educated and affluent Black family. Their five daughters inherited Walter’s fair skin, blonde hair, and hazel eyes. Like their mother, the five daughters graduated from the best schools available to Black children at the time.

In 1918, after graduating from Dunbar High School, Ruth decided to join the Naval Reserve, becoming one of the Golden Fourteen. “Ruth seemed very stern,” Brown says. “She was a stoic person: In every picture, her posture is perfect. She looks very commanding, and I can’t imagine playing with her like I had with my great-grandmother on my mother’s side.” She and Brown’s father were both buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Although Brown is one of the few to write about the Golden Fourteen, she is not alone. The Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote about Sara Davis Taylor, another yeomanette, in 1992. Taylor reportedly tried to join the Navy even before 1917. She and other Black women were turned away by military doctors, Milloy writes, because “they all allegedly had flat feet.” Only after President Wilson’s 1916 law were they assigned to Risher’s muster roll unit.

Relatively few of these stories have been passed on. Brown’s memoir is now out of print, and, according to Milloy’s column, Taylor and her husband did not have children. Richard E. Miller, a naval veteran and historian, laments in an article that many details may remain a mystery. “It is believed that all of the Black Navy women from the First World War have now passed away,” Miller writes. “Regrettably, the ‘golden’ place they deserved as pioneers in the annals of Afro-American, as well as naval and women’s history, was never accorded them during their lifetimes; except perhaps within their immediate family circles.”

Racism and sexism were overt and systematized—but the Golden Fourteen entered the Naval ranks.

No one is quite sure how the Golden Fourteen convinced a segregated military to hire them, years before women could vote and half a century before the end of Jim Crow. Some historians theorize that all 14 worked in the same office, where white supervisors could monitor and protect them. Others suggest that most of the Golden Fourteen had light enough complexions to pass for white—though photographs suggest that this was not the case for all of them.

These questions have bothered Regina Akers, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command, for years. Akers, who is Black, has made a name for herself by centering Black women in military history. “To learn of these women was exciting, and also frustrating,” Akers says. “There are some sources out there that mention them, but it’s always done in such a tangential way.”

The historical backdrop makes the achievements of the Golden Fourteen all the more surprising. “Lynchings were a popular occurrence; they were carried out with little threat of reprisal,” Akers says. “ If a black person approached a white person, they either moved aside, or they understood that you didn’t look them in the face, and just called them ma’am or sir.”

The U.S. military remains a site of systemic racism. This summer, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force released a video describing the racism he’s experienced during his career. When the Military Times surveyed hundreds of its readers in 2018, more than half of respondents of color said that they had witnessed white nationalism or racism from their peers.

Such stories have led Bell, who is white, to reflect on her own career as a naval officer. “I would ask Black colleagues, some working under me, about their experience as Black sailors in the Navy,” she says. “I realize that whatever my intentions may have been, they did not trust me to tell me what was really going on. People say that once you’re in uniform, no one looks at the color of your skin—but that’s crap.”

For Akers, the Golden Fourteen are compelling not because they are unique, but because they shared the struggles of so many Black Americans who have fought for equality. “I think it’s important to remember that the efforts to bring about equal opportunity are part of the larger civil rights movement of that time period,” Akers says. “There has always been a civil rights movement in the U.S., because there have always been people advocating for change and fighting for their rights.”

Originally published Atlas Obscura by Giulia Heyward.

Let's Rethink This is licensed under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) 4.0 License


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