In the late 1970s, Sacramento meter maid Jeannie Dicks kept meeting women like herself who’d served in the military but didn’t know how to talk about their time in uniform.
Many felt out of place at VFW and American Legion halls. Some felt discouraged from talking about their military service at home.
Dicks, who died on New Year’s Eve at age 82 in San Diego, helped give women veterans a place to be themselves as the co-founder of one of the country’s first national advocacy groups for female military service members. It lives on under the name Military Women Across the Nation.
“From the day it was founded to the day she died, she was active with it,” said her son, Tommy Elledge of Lincoln.
Dicks, who was known as Jeannie Palermo when she lived in Sacramento and worked for the city, had a fairly short military career. She joined the Navy in 1952, the year she graduated from Gustine High School in Merced County.
She married a sailor named Edgar Elledge in February 1953 and left the Navy by that summer because she was pregnant with Tommy. At the time, that was reason enough to discharge a female sailor from the service.
Yet that brief career “had a profound impact on her life,” Tommy Elledge said.
As time went on, she saw a need for a group that would speak up for female veterans. She met many leaving the armed forces out of the Air Force bases around Sacramento.
“She decided we need women an organization to help them as they were mustering up” for their lives after the military, Elledge said.
Her career would be different today.
The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq knocked down some of the last barriers that prevented women from applying for ground-level combat jobs. Women can serve on submarines. Hundreds of female soldiers this year are moving into ground-level combat positions that are newly open to them in the Army, too.
Unlike in Dicks’ time, female military service members can stay in uniform while pregnant and raising children. The Defense Department last year, in fact, enhanced parental leave, giving parents 12 weeks off in an effort to retain experienced female troops.
“It’s kind of tough for folks in today’s world to understand,” said Patty Parks, a career sailor who is the president of Military Women Across the Nation. “Women were not recognized for their skills. The fact is there were a lot of stereotypes surrounding working women of any kind” when Dicks served in the Navy.
The organization Dicks co-founded with the late Loda Mae Dobbins and Esther Govorchin originally was called WAVES National, a name that paid homage to women who served in World War II through the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program.
In 1980, it held its first convention in Sacramento. About 250 women attended.
It published a regular newsletter and became a veteran service organization, a status that let it advocate for individual veterans with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
More importantly, the organization was a place “where these women were allowed to laugh and joke and talk about stuff they had done. They could use their slang terminology, it was a camaraderie of all sorts,” Parks said.
Dicks is survived by her husband, Ralph Dicks; her two sons, a daughter and adopted daughter. She was preceded in death by husbands Elledge and Joe Palermo.
The family has not yet announced a date for her funeral service. She is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.