Proud of service to country, Ferrisburgh native has seen changes for women in the Army

MIDDLEBURY— Among the many veterans profiled in the Independent have been ones who landed on D-Day or fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Waltham Army veteran Pam Norton exemplifies a kind of quiet courage, also important in military service, putting duty before all, at one point even before her new family.
“You go where you’ve got to go and do what you’ve got to do,” said Norton.
Norton grew up on a Ferrisburgh dairy farm and graduated from Vergennes Union High School in 1976. Within months, she signed up for the Army and began basic training in Alabama.
She notes that her five years in the Army, a first tour from 1976 to 1978 and a second from 1979 to 1982, came at a time of transition: She was among the last to belong to the Women’s Army Corps and to train in Morse Code.
Norton started basic training in December 1976, and the WAC was disbanded in 1978. Fort McClellan in Alabama, the base where she and all WAC enlistees did their basic training, was closed in 1999. And Torii Station, where she served in Okinawa, Japan, in the early 1980s, has been rechristened the United States Army Garrison Okinawa.
Her Army years were a time of personal transition as well. Basic training gave her more confidence in herself, said Norton.
“We did obstacle courses. We did the crawling through the mud on your hands and knees under razor wire and carrying stuff. You had to do the push-ups and the chin-ups and the sit-ups. You got up and you ran a certain number of miles every day and you carried a certain amount of weight on your back,” she said.
Some young women just gave up, Norton remembered.
“We had one girl who was so homesick, she cried every night. And then all of a sudden she was gone,” she said.
A farm girl who’d never been farther away from home than Massachusetts, Norton said the Army exposed her to new people and places. Basic training threw together young women from small towns, big cities, different family backgrounds and different races and made them find common ground.
“We all opened up and talked about families and our lives,” said Norton.
It also forced recruits to cooperate, to pool their skills.
“I know that you can’t make your bed right. You just can’t do it. But you can buff your boots and I can’t. So you start working with each other so that the whole group doesn’t get penalized for something,” said Norton, who also pointed to a certain “us against them” spirit that got recruits working together to best the drill sergeants.
Initially, the Army assigned Norton to train as a medic. But there was one problem.
“Back then when I saw a needle I passed out. Even in the barn when they were giving cows a shot, I’d go right onto the ground,” she said.
The Army instead gave her administrative training and assigned her to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where the commanding Sergeant Major would stand over her shoulder watching her type and grumble, “I don’t know why they let women into this man’s Army.”
Norton finished her tour, returned to civilian life, and then reenlisted within a year. She completed Morse code training and was sent to Japan. While there she had her first child.
A single mother, Norton moved next door to friends who also had an infant, and they shared childcare duties.
“I think that’s part of the military because you understand what it’s like not to have,” she said. “You don’t have grandma. You don’t have grandpa. You don’t have cousins or sisters or brothers that you can say ‘hey can you take the kid for a half hour?’ So you become each other’s families.”
Then Norton was reassigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, a place where she knew no one, and where she knew that part of her responsibilities would include being given four-hour alerts to be ready to report to base and go anywhere the military wanted to send her.
Then came her biggest sacrifice for the military.
Reluctantly, but with a clear sense of duty, she sent her six-month-old son to live with his grandparents in Vermont while she made her way to Kansas.
“When they tell you you’re going to go, you’re going to go,” said Norton.
That separation was one of the greatest challenges she faced in the military.
“My mother called me and said, ‘He took his first step, and I cried. So it was at that point where I said when this tour is done, I’m done,” Norton recalled.
The military has become more sensitive to the needs of families, said Norton. But back then she described the message to women soldiers as, “If the government wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one.”
Norton is proud of the strides women have made in the military, describing one of the latest firsts: In early October Marine Mariah Klenke became the first woman to train and qualify to lead amphibious platoon assaults.
But above all else Norton is proud to be an American and proud to have served her country. She points to the flag as a symbol of “a nation of many. It doesn’t stand for one culture, one race or one whatever. This country was settled by many, many different people, from many different cultures and countries. And so that flag to me is a symbol of all of us.”
And for Norton, military service is a bedrock on which American freedoms rest.
“We’re lucky. We are so lucky. We can say what we want. We can do what we want. Whether you agree or disagree with taking a knee or whatever else is going on in this country, we have the ability to do it, and that’s because there are people who have served their country and fought for our right to speak for ourselves.”
Nevertheless, she remains troubled by the political tensions currently sweeping the country, and offers a reflection based in part on what she learned in the Army: “To be a cohesive unit we have to learn to accept our differences and we need to respect each other.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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