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This Month in NCO History:

March 30, 1968 — The First Female Command Sergeant Major

By Pablo Villa

March 14, 2014

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Women in the Army have enjoyed several recent milestones, most recently the  announcement that 33,000 positions previously closed to female Soldiers will open in April.

The news invokes memories of landmark moments for women throughout the Army’s history. One of the most momentous was provided more than 45 years ago by Command Sgt. Maj. Yzetta L. Nelson.

Nelson holds the distinction of being the first woman promoted to the rank of command sergeant major. She was pinned on March 30, 1968, during an earlier period in the Army’s history where advancements for women were occurring at a quick pace.

Less than five months before Nelson was awarded what, at the time, was the Army’s highest enlisted rank, President Lyndon Johnson signed Public Law 90-130, which removed restrictions on advanced military rank for women and lifted ceilings on the number of female Soldiers in the Army. The law, signed Nov. 8, 1967, came after heightened calls for equal opportunities for women in the Army, who for decades were kept out of the general and flag ranks, instead assigned to the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC. After Nelson’s promotion, women actively participated in the Vietnam War and eventually integrated into the Army after the WAC was dissolved in 1978.

Nelson, a Shevlin, Minn., native, served 26 years in the Army before her retirement in 1970. She joined the WAC in 1944, serving initially as a clerk-typist. She quickly ascended the ranks with assignments in Germany, Hawaii and Washington, D.C., before being promoted to sergeant major in 1966. Two years later, she earned her place in history.

After leaving the Army, Nelson traveled the country to deliver speeches about the WAC’s legacy and the role of women in the military. She was a guest speaker at the opening of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, Va., in August 2005.

“This museum preserves our history and showcases the achievements of women in the Army,” Nelson said at the opening ceremony. “Young people thank us for the opportunities they are receiving today because of the brave Soldiers who went before them.”

Nelson worked as a church secretary and volunteered with a local charity before her death on May 14, 2011, in Brooklyn Center, Minn.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa


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