Peedee, South Carolina native Carol King was in her final year of high school when she heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Like millions of other African Americans she too had a dream. Hearing his speech stoked the flames of determination for her and gave her the courage to achieve her own dream: to become a nurse.
In 1964 King graduated from Marion High School in Peedee with honors and she ranked in the top ten of her class.
Following her graduation King moved to Philadelphia to attend a nursing school. She trained and worked at one of the largest hospitals for two years to become a certified nursing assistant, a CNA. But, being a nursing assistant was not enough for King, she wanted to become something more; a licensed practical nurse, or LPN.
However, in order to continue her training with the hospital she was working at she would be required to commit to a six year contract. King said that at that time, she was only 19 years old and she was not willing to make that commitment.
Instead, she had heard that the Army was trying to increase the number of African American recruits into the ranks and they were particularly looking for women. Back then, King explains, the Army needed women to fill the support jobs.
Women were not allowed to be in combat roles but they were needed to take care of other recruits by working as nurses, cooks, and doing laundry. So King took her newly acquired CNA certificate and visited a recruiter.
In February 1970 King enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). She found that because she was female she was not allowed to enlist in the regular Army. But that did not stop her. The WAC was able to give her the training she needed to achieve her dream in less time than the hospital could. So she gladly signed up.
King was sent to Fort McClellan, AL to complete her basic training then on to Fort Sam Houston, TX where she was trained as a Pharmacy Technician for Advanced Individual Training (AIT).
After completing AIT she was given the 91-A MOS, a medic. Following her AIT she was sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD for on the job training.
Once her training was complete, King received orders to Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver CO where she worked for 10-11 months.
While here she met and married a soldier in the Army who was stationed at Fort Carson and her MOS was changed to 91-C, a LPN.
King had finally achieved her dream, but she wasn’t done yet.
Shortly after marrying, King received orders that would have taken her away from her spouse. King said that back then, women in the WAC were not allowed to be married and they were not allowed to have any children. And to make things worse, she was not officially in the Army. The WAC and the Army were two separate entities and orders from one did not have to be followed by the other.
After expressing her frustration about her situation to her mother back home in South Carolina, her mother contacted her state senator, Strom Thurmond. King’s mother told Senator Thurmond about what her daughter’s situation and she must have made some kind of impression on him.
Shortly after their meeting, King received orders from the WAC ordering her to Fort Carson. She was the first female medical assistant to be assigned to Fort Carson, where she worked in the Intensive Care Unit.
Starting in 1973 with the rise of feminism and in an effort to promote equality, rules that prevented women from enlisting in the Army were changed and women in the WAC began transitioning over to the regular Army.
King was more than willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with her male counterparts so she made the transition as well.
Later that year King received orders to Vietnam, but there was a problem. The orders had her social security number, her rank and her unit.
However, her name was spelled wrong. The orders were issued in the name of Carl King. She brought the error to the attention of her commander and the orders were cancelled. Unfortunately, several months later King’s pay was stopped. Upon inquiring as to why, she was informed that she, rather Carl King, had been killed in action in Vietnam. It took nearly a year to get the error corrected and her pay restored.
She later received orders to Vietnam again, but, this time she was pregnant, so the orders were again cancelled.
King was then ordered back to Aberdeen proving Ground where she became the first black female NCOIC of the Emergency Department.
For several years King traveled back and forth between Germany and the United States where she was assigned to different medical facilities and units. She faced more than her fair share of racial and sexual discrimination. She was not immune to constant and sexual harassment and degrading innuendos.
But King did not let any of that hold her back. If anything it empowered her even more. King moved up the ranks and with each new assignment, she was given more and more responsibility.
In 1988 she received orders to Fort Polk. King was assigned to the 115th Combat Support Hospital at Bayne Jones Army Community Hospital (BJACH). After the start of the Gulf War King received orders to deploy to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. While there she was responsible for treating Iraqi POW’s, women and children in addition to wounded American service members.
Following her return, King officially retired in 1993 at the rank of SFC. She was on the promotion list to receive her E-8 but she was ready to move on to the next chapter of her life. However, retirement for King did not mean it was time to relax, she wasn’t done.
Instead King went right back into Federal service. King took a LPN position and went right back to work at BJACH.
She was instrumental in establishing the same-day surgery unit at BJACH and in 1994 she received the first awarded Licensed Practical Nurse of the Year award.
King retired again, this time permanently, after 20 more years of service to her country.
King came from a poor background but she knew that an education, a dream and an opportunity was all that she needed to succeed. Sprinkle in the determination she had to not let her race or her sex be a barrier and you have her recipe for success.
Author’s note: There was a Robert Carl King killed in Vietnam in 1969.