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NEPA organizers highlight women in the military, from monuments to a museum

Aimee Dilger
A memorial for 2nd Lt. Carol Drazba of the U.S. Army stands outside of the Gino J. Merli Veterans' Center in Scranton. A monument to honor women veterans is planned for later this year in Honesdale.

Local history and a push from her community inspired Kim Erickson to honor women veterans, a group she says wasn’t always acknowledged.

“In the old days, some of the women weren’t recognized as veterans even though they were nurses,” she said.

Erickson became known locally for her veteran advocacy projects like the Wayne County Honoring Heroes banners that hang along the streets. When residents asked if she could create a memorial dedicated to women, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I always love the challenge to see if I can do something,” Erickson said.

Like Erickson, other veteran advocates in Northeastern Pennsylvania have made it their mission to highlight women in the military. Organizers of projects in Scranton and Mount Pocono said challenging gender stereotypes, among other factors, motivated them in their work.

An effort in Honesdale

Last month, Wayne County approved a location in Honesdale for a women veterans monument near the county courthouse, with Erickson organizing the effort.

Honesdale’s historic Samuel Dimmick Building, which sits next to the courthouse, seemed like a fitting location to Erickson.

“That was the original hospital of Wayne County so I thought it would be a cool little touch,” she said, “in the beginning all the women were nurses in the service, mostly.“

All roles past and present are worth celebrating in the memorial, Erickson said, adding that she wants women who are currently serving to be represented, too. Women made up more than 17% of active-duty military service members in 2022, according to the Department of Defense.

There were several ideas for the monument’s design, Erickson said, but the final version will be made of stone. An original plan to unveil the memorial on June 12 to coincide with Women Veterans Day is no longer feasible, she admitted, but she looks forward to completing it later this year.

Erickson credits family ties to her deep involvement in the veteran community. Her father is a Navy veteran and her grandfather served in World War II. In the past, she helped plan a trip to Washington, D.C. for local veterans and worked on extensive archival projects.

“I walked 168 cemeteries in Wayne County with friends, and we logged every veteran that we could,” Erickson said, adding that they found the names of about 7,000 veterans. The group compiled that information for a podium that also stands near the Wayne County Courthouse.

Mount Pocono museum

Sgt. Maj. Claudette Williams said a passion for visibility in the veteran community inspired her to create the Women Veteran Museum from scratch in about five months. She was tired of being mistaken for a United States Army wife, not someone who dedicated 30 years of her life to military service.

“The museum came about because of constantly hearing the words, ‘Where did your husband serve?’ whenever you present your [military] ID,” Williams said.

The Mount Pocono museum opened its doors in June 2019, but moved to a larger location last March at 29 Sterling Road. Visitors can now find more information about women “in every branch of service from every timeframe” plus an interactive showcase at her museum, said Williams, who contributed some of her stories and uniforms to the project, too.

Williams remembered a formative moment at a 2019 reunion for fellow high-ranking service members. Someone assumed a group of women officers were attending the event as their husbands’ guests.

“We are invisible as sergeant majors as women in the military… So I came back a little bit frustrated,” Williams said.

That frustration turned to devotion. After the reunion, Williams set her sights on teaching people about the history of women in the U.S. Armed Forces.

“People will be surprised to hear some of the contributions that women have made,” Williams said. “We’re mothers, we’re teachers, we’re educators, we’re businesswomen, but we’re servicewomen who have contributed and are still serving.”

A Scranton tribute

Kim Onda Atkinson recalled learning about a Vietnam War nurse, 2nd Lt. Carol Ann Drazba, on her first day as a student at Scranton State General Hospital in the early 80s.

A nursing instructor stopped her group in the hallway, showed them a bronze plaque and explained that Drazba, a Dunmore native, had also studied in the building where they stood. At age 22, Drazba was one of the first American women – and one of only eight U.S. nurses – to die in the Vietnam War.

That memory from nursing school stayed with Onda Atkinson.

“I always had her in the back of my mind,” Onda Atkinson said of Drazba.

But she was driven to give the wartime nurse more than a plaque on a wall.

Working as a nurse in trauma and emergency departments for 30 years made Onda Atkinson respect and identify with the experiences of military nurses. Although she didn’t serve in the military, she has become a devout veteran advocate since leaving the medical field due to health reasons.

“I have the greatest respect for women in service right now,” she said.

Thanks to Onda Atkinson, a street corner in Scranton has commemorated Drazba since 2012. A statue of the wartime nurse stands at Franklin Street and Mulberry Street outside the Gino J. Merli Veterans’ Center, which was built in the hospital’s place after it was demolished.

Onda Atkinson led the effort with advocacy group Friends of the Forgotten to build the Drazba memorial, raising nearly $200,000 over two years.

She remembered the statue’s dedication ceremony. Thousands of people attended, streets were closed down and the head of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps even traveled to town for the occasion, Onda Atkinson said.

But while she was looking for local support during the memorial’s planning phase, Onda Atkinson remembered one interaction that left her “boiling.”

Onda Atkinson and her husband, himself a Vietnam War-era veteran, went to speak with a local veteran service organization. She told them about the plan to honor Drazba and asked if they’d be willing to help.

“They knew who [Drazba] was,” Onda Atkinson said. “They had her picture on the wall.”

The organization’s leader was sitting at the bar, she remembered.

“He turned to me and he said, ‘She was just a girl. There were men over there fighting,’” Onda Atkinson recounted. “I said thank you, and I left… and that just set me on a mission. That is why I do what I do.”

Onda Atkinson has gone on to complete other projects in Lackawanna County, including the Freedom Fighter Veterans Memorial Park in Olyphant, which pays tribute to "the modern day desert solider" and was dedicated last November.

Share your story

When the Honesdale memorial is ready to be unveiled, Erickson also plans to create a booklet that contains stories. She has asked women veterans to share their memories, insisting that participants don't need to be from Wayne County. Erickson can be reached at kimeric1967@yahoo.com.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.