Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

June A. Willenz (1924 -     )
MSA SC 3520-15536

Biography:

June Willenz has tirelessly crusaded for the rights of veterans over her long and industrious career. Her efforts in asserting the rights of the less-than-honorably discharged and women veterans highlights a life filled with generosity and compassion for a historically neglected group of individuals. Willenz's humanitarianism touched all aspects of her life, and was felt by those fortunate people who have had the pleasure to know and work with her. Willenz is, and will continue to be, one of the great leader's in veterans' and human rights in the United States and abroad.

June Adele Willenz was born on December 17, 1924, in Bethesda, Maryland.1 She received both her bachelor's degree in chemistry and her master's degree in philosophy from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.2 Willenz worked in a variety of jobs after earning her degrees. She was a columnist for the newspaper Stars and Stripes, an instructor at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland, and program and research director at the Department of Labor's Special Project on Employment of Women Veterans, among other positions.3 From these early years, it is easy to see that Willenz's life would be an unconventional one, lived with a level of independence and leadership quite alien to most women of the time. The strength of her convictions would not allow Willenz to sit passively back and wait for injustices to fix themselves. She took an active interest in bettering the lives of all individuals, an interest that would shine brightly in her later career.

This interest in finding justice took Willenz to the American Veterans Committee (AVC), where she was appointed the organization's Executive Director in 1965; she held this post until the AVC's dissolution in 2003.4 The AVC formed during World War II to, "...[advocate] for peace and social justice for all Americans while also championing the needs of returning veterans."5 Under the direction of Willenz, the AVC focused it's attention on the rights of the less-than-honorably discharged and women veterans.

Willenz's first major accomplishment under the AVC began in the 1960s, when the issue of the rights of the less-than-honorably discharged came to her attention. At this time, Willenz was the first and only female head of a veteran's organization.6,7 There were also, at the time, five classifications of discharges: honorable, general, undesirable, bad conduct, and dishonorable.8 If a veteran had a undesirable or bad conduct classification on their discharge papers, they were considered less-than-honorably discharged.9 Hundreds of thousands of veterans were considered less-than-honorably discharged, and they appealed to the AVC because their status was impeding their ability to find employment, as well as receive veteran's benefits, such as healthcare, employment aid, and continuing education.10

As Willenz began researching this issue, she discovered that many of the Vietnam veterans had opted to accept less-than-honorable discharges rather than face court-martial for minor offenses, and that many of these discharges were related to drug use (mainly marijuana) rather than gross insubordination.11 Moreover, most of the less-than-honorably discharged were from a lower socio-economic bracket, and made up a minority of the total veteran population.12 In other words, one of the smallest groups of servicemen made up the majority of the less-than-honorably discharged. Willenz would not let the iniquities of this situation stand, and continually campaigned and raised awareness for this under-represented and often overlooked group.

Success would slowly filter down through the Carter Administration for Willenz and her less-than-honorably discharged veterans. Under the direction of President Carter, thousands of Vietnam veterans had their less-than-honorable discharges upgraded to general or honorable discharges on a blanket basis.13 While this order did not apply to all of the servicemen who received less-than-honorable discharges, it was a major victory for Willenz and the AVC. Her tireless pursuit to help these veterans had finally paid off.

During this time Willenz, also discovered her interest in, and passion for, the rights and recognition of women veterans. Her research into this field led to the publication of her book, Women Veterans: America's Forgotten Heroines (1983). Willenz's book documents the lives of several women who served in the military, and discusses the impact their service had later in life.14 She also points out the inequalities in benefits between men and women veterans, and attacks the government's glaring neglect of women veterans.15 It was the first book of its kind, providing a comprehensive overview of women in the military since World War II. It also catapulted the issue of women veterans into the public light, and led to immense progress for women veterans. Due in large part to this book, the first Congressional hearings on women veterans occurred and a Women Veterans Advisory Committee was formed at the Veteran's Administration.16

Around the same time her book was published, Willenz was selected as a member of the First Advisory Committee on Women Veterans and Executive Committee for the Veteran's Administration; she was a member from 1983 until 1986.17 In 1986 she organized a conference on "Women in War."18 Moreover, Willenz testified before Congressional subcommittees on the status and rights of women veterans on several occasions. In one of her speeches to Congress she asserted that, "...it is incumbent upon those responsible for veterans benefits, policies, and services to provide the outreach necessary both to find the women veterans and to inform them of their rights to benefits."19 It was not just about gaining their rights, it was also about finding those women veterans and telling them that they had these benefits all along. Her participation in such hearings were immensely valuable in obtaining equal rights for women veterans.

Willenz also led the World Veterans Federation's Committee on Women from 1983 until 2006.20 She was the Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Women for the Federation.21 She also served as the World Veteran's Federation representative to the United Nations during this time, remaining a very active member of the international community on the issue of women in war.22 Through her work with the World Veteran's Federation and the United Nations, Willenz worked on Project Open, a non-governmental organization (NGO) Committee on Refugee Women.23 Willenz's compassion for women veterans spread to include all women in wartime situations, especially women living in war zones, and her efforts to raise awareness on these issues have been invaluable.

Willenz was also a key figure in establishing the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, the only national memorial dedicated to women veterans.24 Willenz served as the executive director of the Women in Military Service For America Foundation, the organization responsible for lobbying and succeeding in getting Congressional approval to build the monument.25 Willenz asserted that the memorial was, "...long overdue. Women wrote a very marvelous page in our history."26 Congress approved the Women's Memorial in 1986, but stipulated that it had to be built with non-federal funds.27

In addition to all these professional accomplishments, Willenz also organized the first National Conference on the Draft in 1966.28 She has also provided testimony to a plethora governmental agencies, such as the Department of Justice, and has published numerous studies, articles and pamphlets on women veterans and women in war.29 Moreover, Willenz has worked alongside such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Council on Education, and the National Urban League, and has chaired several standing committees, in Congress and elsewhere.30 Her continuous efforts over the years for bettering the condition of individuals worldwide has led her to winning numerous awards, including the Medal for Leadership in the World Veterans Federation and the Achievement/Leadership Award for the AVC.31 Willenz's involvement, activities, and awards are seemingly endless, and her drive for justice is inspiring to any who takes the time to learn her story.

June Willenz is an unstoppable force in the battle for human and veterans rights. She is a pioneer in promoting and expanding the benefits of women veterans across the United States, and helped to raise awareness worldwide about the plight of civilian women in war zones. Her contributions to society and history are unquestionable, and her life is a prime example of how the activism of just one person can lead to positive change. June A. Willenz is, undeniably, a shining fixture in the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.
 
 

Written by Archival Intern Emily J. Steedman, B.A. History, A.A. Liberal Arts & Sciences
 
 

ENDNOTES:
1. "Ancestry.com - U.S. Public Records Index, Volume 1," Ancestry.com,
   http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?rank=1&new=1&MSAV=1&msT=1&gss=angs-g&gsfn=June+A.&gsln=Willenz&cpxt=0&catBucket=
   rstp&uidh=ukd&_83004003-n_xcl=m&cp=0&pcat=ROOT_CATEGORY&h=144890214&db=USpublicrecords3&indiv=1 (Accessed June 29, 2011).
   Return to text
2. "June A. Willenz C.V.," June A. Willenz Associates, http://junewillenz.com/JAWillenz_CV.pdf (Accessed June 29, 2011). Return to text
3. Ibid. Return to text
4. Ibid. Return to text
5. "Guide to the American Veterans Committee Records, 1942-2002MS2144," The George Washington University,
    http://www.gwu.edu/gelman/spec/ead/ms2144.html (Accessed June 29, 2011). Return to text
6. Beverly Miller, "Willenz, June A. Women Veterans: America's forgotten heroines (Book)," Library Journal 109, No. 1 (January 1, 1984): 98, EBSCOhost.
    Return to text
7. Gus Tyler, "Vets can thank June Willenz," Daily Times. April 18, 1977, NewspaperArchive.com. Return to text
8. Robert Hill, "(1) Nam. (2) Home. (3). Jobless.," New York Times, May 3, 1975, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
9. Ibid. Return to text
10. Ibid. Return to text
11. Gus Tyler, "Vets can thank June Willenz," and "U.S. to upgrade discharges for thousands of Viet vets," Independent (Long Beach, CA), March 3, 1977,
    NewspaperArchive.com. Return to text
12. Robert Hill, "(1) Nam. (2) Home. (3) Jobless.," and Gus Tyler, "Vets can thank June Willenz." Return to text
13. "U.S. to upgrade discharges for thousands of Viet vets," Independent. Return to text
14. Romana Danysh, "Review: [untitled]," Military Affairs 49, No. 3 (July 1985): 164, JSTOR. Return to text
15. Ibid., and Beverly Miller, "Willenz, June A. Women Veterans." Return to text
16. "Guide to the American Veterans Committee Records, 1942-2002MS2144," The George Washington University. Return to text
17. "June A. Willenz C.V.," June A. Willenz Associates. Return to text
18. Ibid. Return to text
19. United States. Congress. House. Committee on Veterans'Affairs. Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Status and concerns of women veterans:
    hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, House of Representatives, One hundred first
    Congress, first session, June 22, 1989, Washington, U.S. G.P.O., 1989, Microfiche. Return to text
20. Cody Calamaio, "Bethesda woman honored for her commitment to femal veterans," Gazette.Net,
    http://ww2.gazette.net/stories/05042011/potonew212439_32538.php (Accessed June 29, 2011). Return to text
21. "World Veterans Federation Committees," World Veterans Federation, http://www.wvf-fmac.org/english/committees.html (Accessed June 29, 2011).
    Return to text
22. Cody Calamaio, "Bethesda woman honored." Return to text
23. "June A. Willenz C.V.," June A Willenz Associates. Return to text
24. "Women in Military Service For America Memorial - History," Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.,
    http://www.womensmemorial.org/About/history.html (Accessed June 30, 2011). Return to text
25. "Memorial Sought For Women War Veterans," Aiken Starndard (South Carolina), November 11, 1985, NewspaperArchive.com. Return to text
26. Ibid. Return to text
27. "Women in Military Service For American Memorial - History," Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc. Return to text
28. "June A. Willenz C.V.," June A Willenz Associates. Return to text
29. Ibid. Return to text
30. Ibid. Return to text
31. Ibid. Return to text
 
 
 

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