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FL woman's great-grandson enlists where she signed up in 1942

Laurel Saunders, former U.S. Women's Army Corps member, recalls her World War II service before her great-grandson's enlistment into the Florida Air National Guard's 202nd REDHORSE squadron at Camp Blanding, Florida, Feb. 19, 2020. She enlisted at the same installation in 1942. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Milbrodt)

Laurel Saunders, former U.S. Women's Army Corps member, recalls her World War II service before her great-grandson's enlistment into the Florida Air National Guard's 202nd REDHORSE squadron at Camp Blanding, Florida, Feb. 19, 2020. She enlisted at the same installation in 1942. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Milbrodt)

CAMP BLANDING, Fla. -- For those who choose to serve the country in uniformed service, when and where you enlisted isn't easily forgotten, even if your service began more than 70 years ago. One family has a history that begins in the same spot.

"I was sworn in here at Blanding Nov. 23, 1942," said Laurel Saunders.

Saunders, 99, known to her friends as "Billie," remembers when women weren't allowed to serve in uniform. For women like her, who felt a calling to do their part just like the men, "No" just wasn't an option. Fortunately, with a world at war, the U.S. Army created the Women's Army Corps as a way for women to join the fight in uniform.

"Way back when the war broke out and they started taking all the boys, it's just something inside that tells you, 'I want to go,'" said Billie. "But, at the beginning, they didn't have anything for women. I had to wait a while, but as soon as they opened it up for enlisted personnel, they called me back because my name was on the list and I was the first one from Orlando, Florida, to come up here."

She laughs as she recalls the day more than 77 years ago where a girl, born and raised in Florida, was presented an opportunity to fulfill a calling and venture outside her local community.

"They sent me home until Jan. 3, 1943, and then I thought for sure I would go to Daytona, Florida, because they had a training center there," she said. "But instead, they sent me to Des Moines, Iowa ... on Jan. 3, and I had never seen snow! When I got on that truck to drive out to where we were stationed, I looked at all that snow and thought, 'What have I done?'"

With a smile still wide on her face, she says it wasn't the first surprise in store for her career.

"You might think I'm crazy, but I wanted to be a cook or baker – I thought that would be just super," she said. "But, they [the Army] sent me to Boston on recruiting and I stayed a recruiter until after the war calmed down, when I was sent to Waltham General Hospital, Waltham, Mass., as the first sergeant for the commander."

Her laughter carried through to her reason for visiting Camp Blanding once again after so many years.

"This is my first time back at Camp Blanding since I enlisted," said Billie. "It was a peculiar feeling to come through the gates again, not like coming home but, still a really good feeling."

The travel back to where her service began was sparked by another powerful force in her life. One more member of her family has answered the call of service.

"Today, I was sworn into the Florida Air National Guard's 202nd REDHORSE squadron at Camp Blanding," said Raymond Mills, 18, Billie's great-grandson. "I have a family history of military service, and it means a lot to continue that."

He said he has a more profound feeling of carrying on the legacy because of this tie. He already wanted to serve, but this bond makes it even more special.

"I didn't really know this place existed other than a brief visit to talk with my recruiter," said Mills. "But, when I brought it up at dinner, she lit up and said, 'That's where I signed up!' and I knew I needed to enlist here as well."

After the Feb. 19 ceremony, Mills' great-grandmother had a few words of advice for him and anyone thinking of joining.

"Always remember who you are. You'll run into a lot of different kinds of people and be sent to different places, but don't forget your goals and your morals. Just stick to them."

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