Mary Beth Sallee
Hart Co. News-Herald
Valerie Sturdivant grew up in the Uno community of Hart County. A self-proclaimed daddy’s girl, Valerie knew at a young age how to shoot a gun and work in the fields.
“We were on a little bitty farm, like two and a half acres,” Valerie said. “…Momma worked in the garden, and daddy worked in the field…So I didn’t do too much in the house. I was always out with daddy.”
But when she was just 11-years-old, Valerie suffered a tremendous loss when her father passed away. Leaving just her and her mother, Valerie stepped up to the plate.
“We sold sweet potatoes, white potatoes. We had an orchard – apples, pears, peaches, grapes. We burnt wood and coal,” Valerie explained. “…When daddy died, I knew how to do a lot more than momma realized. I told her there wasn’t no sense in worrying about the church people coming in and doing this and doing that. I could help her, and I did.”
Valerie’s mom wanted her to go to college, but school was the farthest thing from her mind.
“I didn’t like school, and I wasn’t interested in being a teacher or a nurse, and she wanted me to go to school for one or the other,” Valerie said. “In order for her to do that, she was gonna have to put a lien on the farm, and I didn’t want that because I told her, I said, ‘I probably won’t pass no way because I don’t wanna go.’”
Valerie had her sights set on enlisting in the military. She told her mom of her plans and how the Army would pay for her education.
“Oh, Lord. Momma was a fire and brimstone Baptist,” Valerie said. “Women did not go in the army. It was unheard of. I said, ‘Oh, well. So much for that.’”
Valerie needed her mom’s signature to enlist. However, by the time she graduated, Valerie was 19. No signature was needed then.
In 1971, Valerie went into the military just two weeks after graduation. She was sent to the Women’s Army Corp at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama. Valerie then completed Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia. When she graduated AIT, she was sent to Fort Sam in Houston, Texas to the 5th Army Headquarters where she worked as a switchboard operator.
“I worked in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of 5th Army Headquarters,” Valerie said. “…We took all the calls. Any big time politician – governors, senators, presidents – that lived in that area and passed, it was our responsibility to make all the arrangements and everything, do all of the notifications.”
Valerie then went to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. In 1975, the Vietnam War ended and there was a transition to the All Volunteer Army. Women could now go into any field they wanted to, so Valerie chose to be a Military Police (MP).
“I was a Spec 5, and they sent me to Military Police School back to Fort McClellan, Alabama, and from there I went to Germany,” Valerie said.
One of the MP training exercises included gas chamber training. Valerie explained that they were required to remove their gas mask and run through a house shouting their social security number while trying not to inhale gas.
“Well, I didn’t remember my social security number, but I knew how to say 0-0-0-0-0-0 and keep right on running,” she said. “That’s how I made it through that.”
Another memory from MP School was one that occurred on the gun range.
“When we went to the shot gun range, I could hear all the drill sergeants snickering,” Valerie said. “First girl got up, fired that shot gun, fell straight on her bottom. The next girl got up. I thought she would do better because she was about my height. I was 5’10” then. She was a little bitty girl. I wasn’t very big myself. I didn’t think she was gonna be able to do it. She pulled that shotgun back. It kicked her.”
Next up was Valerie.
“Growing up in Hart County, I would shoot anything there was to shoot,” Valerie said. “We went hunting. I told you I was a daddy’s girl. Even though I was 11 when daddy died, I knew how to shoot.”
“I said, ‘Well, Valerie, it’s up to you. You have to show them how to do it,’” she continued. “…I walked up there. They hand it to me. They showed me what I was supposed to do. I act like I didn’t know a thing. I pulled that shot gun, and I shot every target there was. And then the guy looked at me. He said, ‘Girl, where you from?’ I said, ‘Where do you mean where I’m from? I’m from somewhere that shoots guns, that’s where I’m from.’”
In 1977, Valerie was assigned her first job as Military Police in Germany. That brought with it some difficult times as she was an MP, a woman, and African American.
“It wasn’t easy, especially in ‘77. We (police) were (called) pigs, and they (soldiers and others) were always trying to beat us up,” Valerie said. “…When I got to Germany, I went into the mess hall, and I saw my cousin. I said, ‘Hey!’ He said, ‘Don’t talk to me. Keep walking…Meet me outside.’ I was in uniform. He was in uniform (as a soldier), but I had a military police uniform on.”
Valerie’s cousin explained that he couldn’t talk to her because she was an MP. He also urged her to be careful because soldiers didn’t like the police.
Valerie described the Military Police as a “very close-knit company.” Where one went, everybody went, whether it was to eat or attend a movie. That was mainly out of fear of being beaten up if one was caught alone and away from the MP group.
“That was the time in the 70’s that everybody was pigs,” Valerie said. “…I didn’t realize I walked into a nest of hornets when I chose that career at that time, being a woman…It was also hard because I was the only black woman. That made it worse. Every where I went, I was with white men, and even if they (soldiers) would’ve been friendly with me, they thought I was stuck up ‘cause I was always with white people. Well, that wasn’t it. That was my safety. I wasn’t stuck up, but I wasn’t crazy.”
Valerie returned to the United States in 1980. She was stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma and was an E6 rank. During this time, Valerie applied for the United States Army Recruiting Support Command and was accepted.
As an exhibitor, her job was to support the recruiters who were trying to get people to enlist in the military. She traveled 11 months out of the year across the United States.
“They would send us into areas where they were having low production of getting females in, and I would speak,” Valerie said. “You did live presentations. Sometimes, you would have to go to the family’s home because they wanted to speak to a woman soldier.”
During her time with the United States Army Recruiting Support Command, Valerie went all throughout the U.S. There were only 5 states that she didn’t go to. To this day, she still has her map from her travels with marks of every place she went.
Being a woman in the military had its difficult moments, but much worse was the racism that Valerie sometimes experienced.
“When I left Horse Cave going to Fort McClellan Alabama to MP school, I drove by myself,” Valerie shared. “Everybody told me, ‘Be careful. You better leave in the dark so you can get there before dark.’ I ran across signs on the road: ‘N—-, don’t let the sun go down’ and stuff like that. I just kept right on driving. The sun wasn’t going to catch me because I was going to Alabama, and I was going to get there safely.”
Valerie also recalled a time when she played softball for the military and was at a tournament in Georgia.
“We stayed on base, and we went out to a Holiday Inn to eat,” she said. “There was a band there, and we were drinking and dancing and having a good time. We came back to our table, and there was a note on our table.”
That note read: “We don’t play this. KKK”
“We looked around,” Valerie continued. “We saw the same people we had seen when we went out on the dance floor. We politely got our stuff and got out of there.
The angriest that Valerie became was when she was working as an exhibitor around 1983 or 1984 in Pennsylvania.
“I was winding the sides of the van in, and the chief, he was hooking up the tractor to the trailer,” Valerie said. “This school bus passed by. Every kid on that bus said the N-word. You talking about mad, and there I am standing there just winding up. It was grade school students. It wasn’t the high school where we was at.”
“Yeah, I ran into a lot of it (racism),” Valerie added. “But no more than I hadn’t seen growing up in Hart County.”
In 1987, Valerie retired and was medically discharged from the Army. She moved to Louisville and began working at the Naval Ordinance, starting out as a security guard and then becoming a federal police officer.
When police were no longer needed at the Naval Ordinance, Valerie transferred to the VA Hospital. By this time, she had a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and an Associate Degree in Human Relations.
At the VA Hospital, Valerie was a patient service assistant. Two years later, she then worked in admissions.
“I loved working in admissions,” Valerie said. “I loved working with the Veterans.”
Valerie then became the Program Support Assistant for the Associate Chief Nurse of Education. She retired on November 30, 2012.
Looking back on her time in the military, Valerie’s favorite part was traveling.
“Coming from a small town, you never thought you’d be able to go to Rome, Switzerland, or Austria,” Valerie said. “You never thought anything about that. Those are things you just read in school books. That was the most exciting thing for me to be able to get to see some of the world.”
Valerie concluded with advice to other women who may be interested in joining the military.
“Times have changed, really changed,” she said. “There’s been some serious incidents against women in war, in war zones. I guess I would say be very particular with what you qualify for and what you want to do. I have no problem with women going to war, but men do. So I would say, if it’s what you want to do, if you want to travel and see the world, go for it. Just make sure you get into a field that you are accepted in.”
On behalf of Jobe Publishing, Inc., the Hart County News-Herald thanks Valerie Sturdivant for her service to our country.