RUMFORD —  Nearly three dozen female veterans from the Vietnam-war era to present and from across the state participated in Saturday’s recognition of their military service.

Hosted by Napoleon-Ouellette American Legion Post 24, the Female Veterans Luncheon at 1 p.m. was preceded by three hours of “pampering.” That included manicures, hair styling, Reiki and massage provided by local professionals.

Many came to socialize about their military experiences and to meet other female veterans.

Following lunch, legion Commander Tricia Thurston introduced guest speakers from the American Legion Department of Maine and Gov. Paul LePage’s wife, first lady Ann LePage.

“I’ve had things that have happened in the past where people don’t look at me as a veteran,” Thurston said. “I am a veteran and I know all of you are veterans, so this day is to bring awareness to people who don’t realize that they’re veterans and to put it out to the world that women are veterans, too.”

Loud applause erupted across the room.

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LePage thanked the women.

“First of all, I’d like to say thank you for stepping up, for your patriotism and courage to serve this great nation,” LePage said. “As many of you know, my primary focus since I’ve been first lady has been to honor our men and women in uniform and their families. And let me tell you this, there’s been no greater honor for me than doing what I do. I absolutely love it.”

LePage said supporting the nation’s military isn’t done because it’s nice or it makes you feel good.

“I believe we as Americans have a responsibility to do whatever we can do to help those who have served our great country,” she said. “We really live in a country that has come so far in valuing our veterans, and as Americans, we’re proud of our military men and women and value their service.”

She said veterans returning from war today can wear their uniforms proudly, “knowing they are serving the best country in the world. So it’s critical that we say thank you to our vets, as well as welcome home, and you must know that your professional service continues to advance the opportunities that women — particularly service women — experience.

“You’ve volunteered; you’ve proved your competence, your fortitude and unquestionable commitment to a job well-done,” LePage said.

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“As a direct result of your efforts, the possibilities for women are endless. Women are no longer assigned to auxiliary units. They’re enlisted and officers alike to our all-volunteer military.

“You dared to break the barriers, you made history every day and it’s with tremendous respect that I humbly thank you for your service. God bless each and every one of you,” she said.

Prior to LePage’s speech, Women’s Army Corps veterans Nancy Mercer, Gerry Shimamura, and Florence Merrill, all of Bethel, and Debbie Arsenault of Rumford, reflected on their experiences.

Mercer served during the Vietnam era from 1958 to 1978 in Europe, the Orient and stateside along the East Coast. She worked with mainframe computers in communications and data processing of supplies for 12 years. Shimamura served from January 1954 through 1960 as a cook in the 8th Army in Japan, and in latter years as a mess sergeant.

Merrill served from 1958 through 1965 in Europe and in the U.S. working in supply systems and as a mail clerk and athletic and recreation director. Arsenault served six years in the Army starting in 1979 and three years in the Army Reserve. She worked as an administrator, a battalion and company mail clerk and as the company commander’s driver.

Mercer said she’d wanted to join the Army since the seventh grade. However, she said, serving her country in the late 1950s through late ’70s “was a hell of a lot different than it is today.”

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“We had separate basic training for men and women,” Mercer said. “I can remember in basic training you were familiarized with the M-1 (carbine) and that’s about all I can remember, except that it was a lot of marching and marching and drilling and marching.”

Shimamura said she was working in a Bethel sawmill and volunteered “because I wanted to get out of the town of Bethel and see the country, and increase knowledge, but basically to serve my country.”

Arsenault said she joined the Army because the rest of her family was in the Navy and she wanted to be different.

“And, also, the Navy wouldn’t allow women on boats and the Air Force wouldn’t allow women to be pilots, so I went into the Army,” Arsenault said.

She drove a 2½-ton truck, which she described as “awesome” but said her favorite thing was “throwing hand grenades in basic.”

Merrill, a big-game hunter, said she enjoyed parachuting and joined the Fort Benning Sport Parachute Club, where she once pushed a colonel into a swimming pool because he was jokingly pestering her.

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All four said they would “definitely recommend military service” to women and spoke highly of Saturday’s event.

“I think it’s very good and very appreciative,” Merrill said. “They’re showing their appreciation for what we did. Normally, (military service) is a man-oriented thing.”

“For a long time, they didn’t recognize women veterans at all,” Shimamura said.

“I have no regrets,” Mercer said. “I would do it all over again. I looked at it as a job that’s got to be done.”

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