By Samuetta Hill Drew
This week’s article will take a slight deviation as it relates to safety by incorporating March’s recognition of impactful women in America’s history. This week’s Women’s Month spotlight shines on Ret. Lieutenant Colonel Emma Vaiton, an Alabama native.
Vaiton was originally born in Montgomery, Alabama. Her family migrated during her younger years to Birmingham, Alabama where she attended city Public Schools. She is a 1937 graduate of A. H. Parker High School. After completing high school Emma worked for a few years before enrolling at Norwood School of Nursing where she became an RN (Registered Nurse).
The three-year nursing school program was operated by Norwood Hospital in Birmingham. The hospital was later renamed after its Chief Hospital Administrator, Dr. Carraway. It is important to note that during this time period country nursing school programs were operated by local hospitals – not colleges or universities.
After working for several years at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Administration Hospital (VA) in Tuskegee, Ala. Vaiton decided to enroll at Tuskegee College (in later years it became Tuskegee University). She graduated with a Bachelor of Science Nursing Degree in 1951. Her class was the first in the State of Alabama to graduate students with nursing degrees from a college or university. This trend continued nationally transitioning nursing school programs from local hospitals to colleges and universities.
Vaiton continued to work at the VA Hospital in Tuskegee until she joined the United States Air Force in January of 1953. She joined as a captain when most were coming in as second lieutenants. During Vaiton’s military career she distinguished herself by rising through the military ranks from Captain to Major to Lieutenant Colonel. Keep in mind, during this period of our country’s history there were no African American generals.
Vaiton was a psychiatric nurse who received top secret clearance during her tenure with the Air Force. She was based in California, Alaska, England, and Germany. One of her major jobs was meeting the Air Force planes when they landed to help facilitate the transfer of wounded soldiers to military base hospitals where she helped care for them. Later in her career, she became an administrator in the Air Force. On January 31, 1973, after serving her country for 20 years, Vaiton retired.
Asked to identify some of the challenges she faced as an African American woman in a leadership position in the U.S. Air Force she stated, “Push back from some of her male counterparts who were not pleased with taking orders from her.” She added, “They never said anything negative to me directly, rather it was more in their demeanor.”
Asked her biggest contribution to her country, she replied, “keeping our soldiers physically and emotionally stable and safe.”
We want thank Vaiton for being a female pioneer in the United States Air Force and helping To Keep an Eye on Safety for her comrades in arms, her country, and its citizens. Vaiton continues to reside in Birmingham where she remains active.