By: James Pruitt
Being a pioneer means being willing to stake a claim and stick it out so others can come behind you and take advantage of a trail blazed years ago.
Students at Montpelier High School are to get a chance to hear about one such pioneer who lives in their backyard. The veteran, a former Marine, will speak them on Veterans Day.
But this won’t be a typical Veterans Day tale about battlefields and fighting; this will be about Gloria Poorman’s journey to become a Marine and serve with honor in a time when people didn’t like the military much, let alone a woman in uniform.
Poorman grew up in Montpelier. Her first job came when she was 8 years old and she delivered papers for a Mr. Warner for 10 cents a customer. The paper was three typewritten pages stapled together. “I had to buy my own bike,” Poorman said, sitting at her dining room table in her bungalow style house near the fairgrounds.
Poorman had been a good student until she entered high school and the upper classmen began to bully her around. She leaned often on an older brother, but she was on her own a lot. She also suffered from eczema, which caused her to withdraw further into herself. Her grades suffered and she was switched to a program that taught secretarial skills. “I took food for comfort and weighed more than 200 pounds at graduation,” Poorman said.
Upon graduation, her mother sat her down to discuss her future. She was working at Mohawk, (one of the first five to do so). “I told her I didn’t want to get married,” Poorman said. “I told her my dream was to be in the military and a nurse.” But with a C-minus average and her brother already in college, her options were slim. So she opted for the Marines, who proved to be the most difficult branch to enlist in.
The challenge of getting in included discovering the Marines only allowed six women in every six weeks from her district. The district stretched from Cleveland west along the northern edge of Ohio and Indiana and Michigan. “It took over a year to get in,” Poorman said. “I had to lose 70 pounds and pass physicals and written exams.”
The battle was not only against the military but with the people at home as well. In the time period she was trying to get in she found the locals were not so keen on her goal with all the heavy fighting in Southeast Asia.
“They treated you very rude,” Poorman said. “The hometown people did not like a woman going into the military.”
Being a woman from northwest Ohio who wanted to serve in the military was an uncommon experience in the mid-1960s. Besides Poorman, only two other local women served in the war years: Julie Struble Layman, a Navy nurse from the Edon-Edgerton area and Marie Dick, an Army nurse from Pioneer.
Poorman is one of only three Vietnam-era members of the local VFW post. “When you traveled in uniform, people spit on you,” Poorman said. “It was kind of nasty.” That didn’t go over well with her. “Gee, here I am putting my life on the line (for them),” Poorman said. “I hated it. I hated the fact some of the men decided to run.” A presidential pardon that came later for the draft dodgers still sticks in her craw. “To this day I hate protesters,” Poorman said.
Boot camp was at Parris Island, S.C., and Gloria was one of 50 female trainees in her unit. The training was hard and designed to weed out the weak. Only 25 of her unit graduated. “I was the first woman from the five-county area (of northwest Ohio) to enlist as a Marine,” Poorman said. “The others dropped out from the stress of training and they couldn’t pass their tests.”
Her first posting was in Quantico, Va., and oddly enough she got involved with helping wounded Marines, even though the branch has no medical personnel. It was there where she worked with officers, who developed the ground-breaking regimen of physical therapy for soldiers coming back from the Vietnam War. At the time, the military gave scant attention to the wounded men, Poorman said.
“They would just give them a pair of crutches and send them home,” she said. “This was the first rehabilitation center. Instead of (sending them home), they would train them to do physical fitness.” Poorman still has the book on physical education for Marines written by one of her superior officers and prefaced by Robert F. Kennedy. The program was so successful, the military came in and sent the program to be run by universities, she said.
While the purpose of the operation was getting soldiers to be able to live in the civilian world, there were forces opposed to war which saw only a uniform. The fitness program had scheduled a pentathlon which would wrap up with a canoe race across the Potomac River. A party would be waiting for the soldiers and trainers on the other side. But the night before, a group of individuals sabotaged the canoes. When the canoes were launched, they foundered in the river and all wounded soldiers and three trainers died.
The saboteurs walked down the Potomac River bank and entered the base. At the time the incident was classified and Poorman couldn’t tell a soul about it for 45 years. Now that the incident has been declassified, she can find healing from being able to talk about it. During the military investigation, she learned a new word, hyperthermia, which her superiors told her to use when testifying in court about how the soldiers had died. “It was just me, a colonel and a captain left for the (Physical Fitness) Academy,” Poorman said. “Other members of the Marine Corps took over the company.”
She was later transferred to Hawaii where she was assigned to handle classified documents. She said she always carried a briefcase filled with top secret document around the base. During her time as a document processor, she got to see the War Room and other sensitive parts of the base. She was a witness to history as well. “I got to see the signing of the SEATO Treaty,” she said. Her least favorite people, the protesters, nearly took her life when someone planted a plastic bomb above the cafeteria.
At the time, a room below the cafeteria held important documents. She was in that subterranean room during the incident and was told if the bomb squad couldn’t defuse the device upstairs she was to blow up the room she was in, including herself, to keep unwanted eyes from seeing any documents.
The ordinance team blew up the device and the explosion was so loud it damaged her hearing. Later, when she returned to civilian life, she noticed something. “I wondered why I was jumping when a bell or whistle went off at Mohawk,” Poorman said.
After she left the service as a corporal, she returned home in 1971 to Montpelier and worked at Mohawk for 26 until it closed. She then fulfilled a lifelong dream and became a nurse for 20 years. She also was part of the original crew at Williams County EMS in 1979 and served for 20 years.
Now at 69, she turns 70 in the spring, she spends her time volunteering for local groups. She is most excited about being part of a missionary team from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church’s to Kentucky. She is excited about speaking to the local students, especially the girls who she wants to inspire to reach for their dreams despite what anyone says.
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