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Profiles of Strength, Dedication and Commitment: Celebrating Women’s History Month
By Jessica Pellegrini, ASBP Staff Writer
Retired Air Force Col. Suellyn Novak (left) and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Ruth Sylvester (right)
They are mothers, daughters, wives and friends. They are doctors, nurses and blood bankers. They are Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. They are women.
Throughout history, women have played a significant role in military medicine, albeit, not always in the spotlight. Women served as nurses in the Army dating back to the Revolutionary War — some even went into combat beside their husbands or disguised as men. More than 200 years later, over 150,000 women served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, many of which were the first non-nurses to serve in the Army.
Today, women have found their place in the military, and they — just like their male counterparts — are excelling in military positions that save lives on the battlefields around the world and back at home. In fact, the Armed Services Blood Program has several female influential leaders and these women are profiles of strength, dedication and commitment.
Air Force Col. Suellyn Novak
When Novak decided that she wanted a career in military blood banking in 1971, she was told that she would never become a blood bank officer because she was a woman. She became a personnel officer instead, but refused to give up her dream. It took three years and some support from her peers, but she eventually switched from the line of the Air Force to the Biomedical Sciences Corps. At the time, she was only the fifth female ever in the laboratory field.
Novak spent more than 32 years in the Air Force, serving in military blood banking positions all around the country. Serving from 1987 to 1993, she was the first female director of the Air Force Blood Program and the longest sitting director of the program since its inception in 1983.
She established Total Force Training Program for guard and reserve personnel to operate the blood program and completed the Transportable Blood Transshipment Center so that fresh and frozen blood could be moved anywhere, anytime. During Operation Shield and Desert Storm, she and her team put the most units of blood — more than 30,000 units — into theater, despite the Air Force Blood Program being the smallest of the three service blood program offices.
In 1992, she was selected as the American Woman of the Year from the American Biographical Institute and International Woman of the Year for 1992/1993 and again for 1995/1996 from the International Biographical Center. In 2013, she became the first woman to win the ASBP’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Air Force Lt. Col. Ruth Sylvester
Sylvester was the first Air Force quality assurance officer. She was the second female director of the Air Force Blood Program, serving in that role from 1998 to 2000. As the director, she disseminated blood policy for 38 Air Force medical treatment facilities. She oversaw 12 blood donor centers, the transfusion of 20,000 units of blood and collected 30,000 units annually.
She later became the deputy director of operations for the Armed Services Blood Program Office. In this role, she was the key strategist of the Operation Iraqi Freedom blood support plan that delivered 62,000 units of blood to theater. She also helped increase blood collections by 42 percent while decreasing deferrals by 15 percent. In 2003, she became the second woman to serve as the director of the ASBP. She was the 2014 winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Army Col. Elaine Perry
Perry got her start in blood banking as an enlisted laboratory technician rotating through all areas of the lab. When she came back on active duty as an officer, Perry was the officer-in-charge of the transfusion service at the Letterman Army Medical Center in California from 1985 to 1989. She was the second clinical laboratory officer to attain the rank of lieutenant colonel and the first to attain the rank of colonel. She was also the primary investigator for all 25 of the Department of Defense nucleic acid protocols for HIV/HVC and the West Nile virus.
From 1993 to 1994, Perry was the commander of the 461st Medical Detachment in Korea. She later served as the director of the Robertson Blood Center on Fort Hood, Texas, the largest and most productive blood donor center for the military blood program, from July 2000 to July 2004.
When she arrived, the blood donor center was located in three World War II-era buildings, but a new state-of-the-art facility was close to completion. At the time, the Robertson Blood Center was responsible for testing donated blood products collected at all of the Army blood donor centers and most of the Navy sites, so Perry and her team found themselves faced with a challenge — how to move into the new building without sacrificing the testing and with only a little delay. The team began planning, and in August 2001, the Robertson Blood Center was officially moved into its new location.
Navy Lt. Toinette Evans
During Operation Unified Response Haiti 2010, Evans oversaw the blood operations throughout the USNS Comfort’s rapid activation in response to casualty care, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In conjunction with the ASBP and the lab at Guantanamo Bay, she established logistical support for a constant influx of required supplies. Under her leadership, the blood bank performed 300 blood types and antibody screens and cross-matched 134 patients.
In addition to the influential women mentioned above, there are several other women who deserve recognition for their achievements and leadership in the military blood banking community.
Army Col. Janice Mendelson
was the first female director of the ASBP, serving from 1972 to 1973. Mendelson and Sylvester have been the only women to hold this position.
Army Col. Audra Taylor
is the first — and only — female director of the Army Blood Program. She has been in the position since 2014.
Army Col. Donna Whittaker
designed the blood mobile that was used at the Brooke Army Medical Center in 2002. That design became the prototype that was to be purchased for all Army Blood Program donor centers.
Navy Lt. Connie A. Gladding
, was the first female director of the Navy Blood Program, serving from 1987 to 1990. It was another eight years before another woman would hold this position.
Navy Cmdr. Brenda Bartley
was the second woman to serve as the director of the Navy Blood Program, serving from 1998 to 2002. Since the program’s inception in 1972, Gladding and Bartley have been the only women to serve in this office.
Air Force Maj. Toni Mattoch
streamlined collections and the ability to process them at the Keesler Air Force Base Blood Donor Center in Mississippi.
Without these women and their contributions, the military blood program would not be what it is today. Their dedication and commitment to the U.S. military has saved lives. And for that, we will be eternally grateful.
About the Armed Services Blood Program
Since 1962, the Armed Services Blood Program has served as the sole provider of blood for the United States military. As a tri-service organization, the ASBP collects, processes, stores and distributes blood and blood products to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and their families worldwide. As one of four national blood collection organizations trusted to ensure the nation has a safe, potent blood supply, the ASBP works closely with our civilian counterparts by sharing donors on military installations where there are no military blood collection centers and by sharing blood products in times of need to maximize availability of this national treasure. To find out more about the ASBP or to schedule an appointment to donate, please visit
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The Armed Services Blood Program is a proud recipient of the
Army Maj. Gen. Keith L. Ware Public Affairs award
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