Beth Paul picked up her bagpipes. Music swelled to fill a small sitting room in her Essex Jct. home as she breathed life into the instrument’s bag. Her slender fingers covered and revealed holes on the recorder-like neck of the pipes, as Paul moved the pipes’ three drones—the antenna-like poles atop the bag—changing the sounds it produces.
Paul is pipe master of the Essex Jct. based St. Andrew’s Pipers. She’s played since the ’80s and has held almost every office in the band from treasurer to corporal, pipe sergeant to quartermaster.
But it’s not the only type of quartermaster she’s been. Paul is a veteran of the Vietnam War era and served stateside as a quartermaster officer at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
In 1971, at 20 years old, Paul graduated college, and her father signed for her to join the U.S. Army since she was a year too young to enlist herself. Her family was no stranger to service with her father having served in the Navy, grandfather and uncle in the Army, a brother and sister in the Marine Corps and another sister a stewardess for Pan-American flights.
“It wasn’t really, ‘was I going to go into the military,’ but rather, ‘which branch would I go into,’” Paul said.
During her time at the fort, Paul served various roles. At one point she worked in a warehouse managing boots, uniforms and other supplies and shipping them as needed. In another post, clothing sales, she sold uniforms. One of her favorite parts of the job, she said, was kitting Medal of Honor recipients. These individuals, according to Paul, were outfitted free-of-charge for life.
The Women’s Army Corps School was founded at Fort McClellan in 1952, according to the U.S. Army Garrison website. Two years later, it became the first permanent home of the Women’s Army Corps Center.
Between 500 and 700 women served with WAC during the Vietnam War, according to Texas Christian University history professor Kara Vuic. Most worked as clerks, cartographers, reporters, stenographers, typists, photographers, and air traffic controllers, Vuic said. Women were not permitted to fight in active combat.
“I would have been happy had I had a more active role in supporting the troops in the field,” Paul said. “But at that time, women weren’t even handling weapons.”
Paul said she and her compatriots never chafed at the inequity: “It was just the way that it was.”
But when she met her husband, George—a chemical officer, advanced class— in October 1971 and the couple wed the following April, she challenged standards.
According to Paul, her female officer friends assumed she would resign since marriage and children often spelled an end to a woman’s military service.
“The powers that be made it clear that if I became pregnant, I would be expected to resign,” she said. “They didn’t really see women being pregnant and still being on active duty; it just wasn’t done.”
But Paul kept on. She had a two-year commitment and wanted to complete it. She knew the “hierarchy’s” opinion and that her choice “wasn’t go to go over well.” But she completed her stint, and when it ended, she left the Army and started a family, which would grow to include four children.
“It was just a different time,” Paul said. “People thought about work and marriage and family life differently.”
Paul’s young adult years and draw to the military, while normal in her family, did seem unique when compared to her peers, she said.
“It certainly seemed different than what a lot of my contemporaries were doing,” she said.“[It was] frowned on to be in the Army, in the service, really at that time.”
In college, Paul protested with military recruiters while many of her classmates challenged the war.
“I got fired from my [part-time] job,” she said. “I had got to work late because I had been at a counter-protest, and they said, ‘Yeah, well we can’t be having that, so don’t come back.’ But I got another job.”
Today, Paul said she’s a proponent of service for all.
“[There’s] all kinds of work that folks could do for the betterment of the country, for the betterment of their community,” she said, adding service comes in many forms from military roles to first aid, educators and programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps or Vista Corps. “That’s a great way to enhance that feeling of citizenship and patriotism and supporting your country.”
It’s good to see women serving in active combat roles today, Paul said, adding, “Whether you’re a woman or a man doesn’t really impact how you can contribute.”
This Veterans Day, Paul will serve again by leading St. Andrews Pipers in a World War I armistice signing commemorative bagpipe concert. The group will play several tunes including “When the Battle’s Over,” a traditional Scottish retreat song.
Paul was inspired to join the group in 1983 when she watched them perform in Maple Street Park. She recalled seeing one female piper among the players’ ranks.
“I had never seen a female piper before,” Paul said. “So I waited, hung around and talked to her, and she said … I should get lessons because she was leaving, she was moving to some other city.”
The rest, as they say, is history.