An American Hero

Text by Della Sanford/
Photos by Elinor Sanford and the U.S. Army

This story highlights the triumphs of an African American, lesbian soldier during twenty-two years of service in the Army, including deployment during the Gulf War.

I first met Sgt. Elinor Frances Sanford in Autumn of 2017 and we have since married. I enjoy hearing the stories of her travels and adventures in the Army as she described the different countries, traditions and friendships — some that have lasted for more than forty years. She also shares stories about the hard times.

American Hero: A black teen boy and black pre-teen girl in dressclothes stand in front of a rock wall
Growing up in Rome, Georgia, Elinor stands next to her brother Melvin, who recently passed away. Photo: Courtesy Elinor Sanford

Sanford was raised in Rome, Georgia in the late 1950’s where she enjoyed life in the quiet town with her mother, father and older brother. She realized at a young age that she wanted to travel and see the world because of the stories shared by her social studies teacher. 

“Mr. Traylor was a reservist in the Army and he told us about the places he traveled while serving. He always gave details that made me want to see all the things that he described. I knew I had to find a way to travel, too,” Sanford said. 

She also realized at a young age that she was lesbian, and without any gay role models in her rural community, she knew she would need to leave Rome.  

On January 18, 1977, Sanford and her best friend Julia headed to boot camp at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, where women trained separately from men. Sanford said that she and her troop were the last members of the Women’s Army Corp (WAC), which was fully integrated into the Army in 1978. It was a milestone for women, however, it did not change many of the gendered practices that continued during Sanford’s service. 

An American Hero: Women's army Corps handbook with collage of black and white photos of women soldiers
Women’s Army Corps training manual. Photo: Courtesy Elinor Sanford

“Women’s jobs were all administrative back then and you had to be very smart to get them,” she said. “When I became a recruiter, I learned that in order to serve, a girl had to be a Category A, a very high score on the entrance exam, while a boy could be a category D. Females could also be cooks or maintenance, but most were clerical.”

Sanford tested high, so she was able to choose her career path and started as a data analyst. She reenlisted, but then discovered that to excel, she would have to change her career to stenographer, which included opportunities to earn college credits.

“I always aimed for the top, but realized pretty quick that there was a ceiling for women…and especially black women,” she said.  

Sanford only remembers seeing one high-ranking black woman throughout her Army career. 

“She was a sergeant major who made her rank during the Vietnam War and she was very rare.”

An American Hero: Marching soldier in dress uniforms in black and white photograph.
Elinor Sanford (far left) marching with other WACs. Photo: U.S. Army, courtesy Elinor Sanford

Sanford’s hard work gained the trust of high-ranking officials who needed someone to run their offices. She made the rank of sergeant, then staff sergeant, and worked with generals and colonels where she was usually the only woman, and even more frequently, the only person of color. And she was gay. 

During this time there was a regulation called the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy.” The punishment for being gay or lesbian was dishonorable discharge, so Sanford and her fellow soldiers had to be particularly careful on and off base, even during time off. 

An American Hero: Army uniform closeup of medals.
Elinor Sanford’s army dress  uniform with an Army Expert Weapons qualification badge, Army Recruiter badge and an Army Commendation medal. Photo: Elinor Sanford

“My generation of soldier was tired of persecution. You could only live in peace, in civilian housing and off base if you were married, so we came up with a solution,” she said. 

Sanford and a group in her unit decided to get married in 1981, gay men to lesbian women. They formed a tight knit community and watched out for one another. This started a trend for other soldiers and eventually it caught on as the only way to enjoy a personal life in the army as a gay or lesbian person. The only downside was that as she made her highest rank, she would forever be known in the Army as Sgt. Bernard and not Sgt. Sanford, “… but it was a small price to pay, because we paved the way for so many like us,” she said.

Sanford was deployed to Kuwait in 1990, which marked the beginning of Desert Storm and the Gulf War. Women were not allowed in combat, but because she was a staff sergeant, she was posted in places that were dangerous. 

“Those were scary times,” she said, “but we formed a tight unit and made lifelong friends that I still keep in contact with.”

She talked about some of the customs she and her unit had to follow. 

An American Hero: Black family sta
Elinor Sanford (center) with wife, Della Sanford, daughter Kallie and their Corgi Reese in front of their home. Photo: Courtesy Elinor Sanford

“Women weren’t allowed to show any skin, so they wore long sleeve uniforms at all times, even in 120-degree weather. When off base, women and men could not eat together and in restaurants. Men could sit, while women had to stand. But the biggest change in customs was that women soldiers were not allowed to drive, and as staff sergeant with so many important duties, not being able to drive was an annoying problem!”

Sanford was never able to be openly gay in the Army. She divorced her gay husband via the mail. After the war ended, she came home to deal with her father’s death and was able to finish her career as an executive administrative assistant and recruiter. She was the only woman in that unit because it was deemed necessary to have a female soldier to recruit other women. The assignment included extensive travel around the United States. 

“I‘ve been to every state but five, so I got to travel just as I’d always dreamed. The Army was a long twenty-two years but every minute of it was rewarding and I wouldn’t trade my adventures for anything in the world,” she said.

Today Sanford lives in Cartersville, Georgia with her wife, daughter, and pet Corgi. She is proud to have paved the way for many young soldiers. She loves telling her stories and reminding the next generation that while inequality still exists, she and her troops helped to get the ball rolling.

Student Biography: Della Sanford is an undergraduate student at Kennesaw State University. She will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and minor in Gender and Women’s Studies in fall 2021.

Women’s Leadership through Virtual Exchange: Youth Sharing Digital Stories (WLVE) is a project engaging 100 undergraduate and graduate students from Hassan II University Casablanca with 100 undergraduate students from Kennesaw State University in a unique cross-cultural virtual exchange experience focused on better understanding women’s leadership through research, analysis, and digital storytelling. This virtual classroom-based project will collect biographical stories of successful women leaders in both countries written by the students and publish them online on Bokeh Focus. 

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