Photos by Ty Swenson
Doris Gross, foreground, was the first female commander of an American Legion Department in the 1970s. She was honored at the West Seattle Veterans Center on Nov. 10 with a portrait that will hang there forever more and the naming of the Doris Gross Executive Boardroom. In the background is American Legion Post 204 Commander Carrol Stripling. Gross co-founded Post 204 in the 1940s. (Please click the image above or see below the story for more photos)

Trailblazing Veteran Doris Gross honored at West Seattle Veterans Center

On the eve of Veterans Day, those who have served our country gathered at the West Seattle Veterans Center (formerly the American Legion Hall) on Nov. 10 to share a meal and pay homage to Doris Gross, a trailblazer for women’s increasing role in the U.S. Military.

Go back to 1941 and you’ll find a 20-year-old Doris Gross deciding to join the Navy. With the United States entering military action in Europe, Gross – from Washington – was sent to Texas where she became a link instructor teaching Navy pilots how to fly in simulations before they broke into the sky for real combat.

After four years of service Gross moved back to Washington where she attended college, started a family, worked as an examiner for new recruits and co-founded the West Seattle-based American Legion Post 204, an-all female post known as the “Service Girls.”

A West Seattle Herald article from Dec. 19, 1946 gives a glimpse into that group’s inception: “Women Urged to Join American Legion Post,” the headline read. “Former service women who are interested in joining the American Legion are urged to join Post 204 which is a service girls post trying to reach a 300 membership.”

It was clear: Gross was dedicating her life to serving fellow Veterans. The Legion, founded in 1919, is a non-profit with posts spanning the globe, made up of Veterans helping other Veterans.

Fast forward to 1978 and you find Gross making history. That was the year, after working her way up through the organization and hitting the campaign trail hard (she told the Ellensburg Daily Record in ’79 she logged 14,000 miles of travel, visiting every Legion post she could), Gross was elected as the first woman to serve as Commander of the Washington State Department of American Legion. She wasn’t just the first woman elected to Commander of a department in Washington; she was the first in Legion history.

“They didn’t want a woman,” Gross told the Daily Record during that ’79 interview. An early advocate for women being able to serve in combat roles, she added, “In a war situation, on a battlefield, women could do it.”

Gross held that post for one year, but never let up in her commitment to the American Legion mission. Now at age 91, she is still a member of Post 204.

For 204’s current Commander Carrol Stripling, the opportunity to honor one of her idols on Nov. 10 was an important moment. As part of that honor, the revamped West Seattle Veterans Center boardroom will now be known as the Doris Gross Executive Boardroom.

Stripling said Gross’ legacy comes down to “just breaking down doorways, and doing all those kinds of things made it much easier for those of us who came later to be successful in our careers.”

Stripling, who joined the Army in 1974 and retired in 2011, spent the majority of her career in the Judge Advocate General Corp. She retired as an E-9, the highest pay grade for an enlisted person, which makes her a fine testament to Gross’ work in breaking down those barriers.

In January of this year, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the U.S. Military was finally lifting its ban on women serving in combat, with full implementation occurring by the end of 2015.

“That’s what she was striving for,” Stripling said. “All of us women that have gone into the military have always wanted to do for our country the best possible thing that we can. Now there will be very few restrictions, if any, and we will have the opportunity to serve our country to our fullest ability.”

Stripling and retired Col. Don Bradford (who is taking charge of making big changes as the Legion Hall becomes the West Seattle Veterans Center) shared the stage in officially honoring Gross with the boardroom namesake and the unveiling of an artist’s portrait of her during her Commander role in the 70s.

“Ladies and gentleman, the greatest tribute to a living Veteran: I give you Doris Gross, Commander of the Washington American Legion Department,” Bradford proclaimed as he revealed the portrait.

Gross’ daughter Leslye Bergan spoke for her mother, who is battling Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’m very proud of her … and this is the best honor to have her here,” Bergan said. “She worked hard … (and) the American Legion was a great part of her life. Always remember Veterans.”

Bradford explained the Veterans Center will have a new eatery and tavern opening around the beginning of the New Year, and invited Gross to come back.

“I would like to buy you the first drink there, madam,” he said.

“I’d like that,” Gross replied with a glowing smile.

Doris Gross was first in line for a spectacular Italian dinner served to our Veterans on that night, and as her daughter escorted her out of Pershing Hall service members rose in thunderous applause that belied the relatively small crowd.

That smile never broke as she basked in the most rewarding source of appreciation: her fellow Veterans.

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