In the 20-year-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the very nature of war has changed. One of the biggest changes is how the US military operates in the field with women soldiers. In the early 1980s, there were national discussions when large numbers of women began to enter the ranks of enlisted personnel. The service academies had already gone co-ed and admitted women cadets into their ranks in the 1970s. Many questions arose, including “What will happen when women are taken Prisoner Of War?” “What will happen when women are wounded or Killed In Action?” Nearly 30 years after we as a nation posed these questions we have our answers.
My first encounter with women in modern war occurred at my local DMV. In 2006 I was standing in line to get my driver’s license renewed. Next to me in line at the kiosk to my left stood a woman with a definite military bearing, so resolute in posture you could tell she was a service member despite the fact she wasn’t in uniform. And then I saw it. The scars of what were obviously 2nd and 3rd degree burns on her arms. It took me a couple minutes to put two and two together, and as I walked out of the DMV it hit me that she had been blown up by an IED and suffered burns as a consequence.
The realization of that event took all the air out of my lungs with an emotional gut punch. In June 2009 my friend and football coaching mentor went to visit one of his service academy classmates at Walter Reed who had lost both of his legs in an IED attack and ambush. My friend was deeply shaken from his visit, but not as much from seeing his friend as a double amputee as from seeing women who had been seriously wounded in combat. My friend said, “Steve, I was raised to take care of women, and seeing women so badly hurt was deeply disturbing to me.” My friend got emotionally choked up when he described his walking through the wards at Walter Reed and saw women severely injured from battle.
Fast forward to May 2022 and my meeting with Sharon Toney-Finch, a woman veteran who changed my whole perspective on the women who fight for us and their strength and resilience. At the Savage Wonder Veterans Festival in upstate New York, I encountered a great inspiration and role model to us all. I stopped by one of the booths to speak to a young woman who runs a charity to house homeless veterans. She was so upbeat, warm, and cheerful and with a charm and endearing smile, she was so easy to talk to. About halfway through the conversation, I noticed she had a purple heart ribbon on her lapel.
Sharon Toney-Finch, a woman veteran who changed my whole perspective on the women who fight for us and their strength and resilience.
My first thought was, “Holy shit!” and then, I asked her, “A purple heart!?”
“Yes.” she calmly replied.
I responded, “How did that happen?”
“I was in a convoy and got blown up. I was unconscious and have no idea what happened or how I got out.”
And so began my discovery about a young woman who has lived a heroic life after receiving a tragic near-death sentence.
In 1932 Douglas MacArthur instituted the modern version of the Purple Heart Medal. It was retroactive back to 1917, to include veterans of the First World War. In General MacArthur’s original authorization, a service member did not have to be wounded or Killed In Action in order to be awarded the Purple Heart.
Known today as the “medal that no one wants,” one has to wonder if MacArthur, whose mother he adored and who lived at West Point during his time as a cadet, ever thought that the medal he conceived would ever be awarded to women. Just 10 years later First Lieutenant Annie Fox was the first woman officially awarded the Purple Heart for her heroic actions at Hickam Field during the Japanese attack. Cited for “outstanding performance of duty and meritorious acts of extraordinary fidelity…” First Lieutenant Fox, an RN, performed medical procedures at the station hospital including administering anesthesia while the attack was underway and chaos rained down from above. Uninjured in the attack, she was awarded the Purple Heart on October 26, 1942. The Roosevelt administration changed the Purple Heart qualifications to award the medal to service members wounded or Killed In Action.
On October 6, 1944, Annie Fox’s Purple Heart was replaced with a Bronze Star Medal. Later in the war, First Lieutenant Cordelia “Betty” Cook, RN received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medals for her actions at a combat hospital in Italy. In 1943 she was wounded by shrapnel and continued to provide aid to wounded soldiers. Since the inception of the modern Purple Heart Medal, between 1.8 and 2 million medals have been awarded. Just 500 have been presented to women. Sharon Toney-Smith’s inclusion in this exclusive group has come at a tremendous cost. It has been a journey of pain, suffering, and overcoming great adversity. It is a story that is still unfolding.
Sharon Toney-Finch’s epic life journey began on September 11, 2001. She was beginning her junior year as a business management major at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. One of her best friends from high school, Tracy, was working at Victoria’s Secret on the sublevel mall of the World Trade Center. Sharon was scheduled to meet her friend for lunch in Manhattan. Seeing the attacks unfold from 30 miles away, Sharon realized that her friend might be in the building at work and made numerous attempts to contact her. There was no response from either her cell phone or the work phone for the store. Tracy’s remains were never recovered. Like thousands of other Americans Sharon was motivated by the events of that fateful day, and when she graduated from UConn two years later she enlisted and joined the army.
Sharon Toney-Finch at center with 2 other Purple Heart recipients; Colonel Mark Baaden (Left), and Texas State Representative Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Brian Birdwell.
Sharon Toney-Finch did her basic training at Fort Jackson and then was assigned to her first unit with the 3rd Infantry Division as a MOS 92A logistics specialist. She deployed to Iraq in 2008 and helped to stand up FOB Hammer in Iskandariya. Sharon completed her first deployment in 2009 without incident and returned to Fort Benning for a few months. She was quickly sent on her second deployment to Iraq at FOB Kalsu Iskandariya in late 2009.
Deployment number 2 began smoothly enough, but then Sharon Toney-Smith’s entire frame of reference was shattered and knocked into another world. To this day she doesn’t remember what happened or how. Sharon’s convoy was hit by an IED with a subsequent ambush. Her vehicle was completely destroyed, and her fellow soldiers told her that she pulled three other soldiers out of the vehicle before collapsing. Sharon came back to consciousness at Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany in August 2010. She had been in a coma for six months and didn’t recognize her mom and dad who had come to Germany to stay with her. Sharon had a shattered pelvis, broken vertebrae, a broken right arm, neuropathy on the right side of her body, and a severely fractured skull. In the six months she was at Landstuhl she underwent multiple surgeries to correct the skeletal fractures and had a metal plate inserted to repair the damage to her skull. It would be another six months with additional surgeries before Sharon was released from Landstuhl and transferred to Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Even after an ordeal lasting a year Sharon Toney-Finch’s recovery and rehab were only just beginning. After returning to the States from Germany she spent more than a year at Walter Reed, and then the final phases of her recovery took place at Martin Army Community Hospital at Fort Benning. Sharon’s mom, heroic in her own right, stayed with her throughout her long journey through Walter Reed and Martin Army Community Hospital.
Remarkably Sharon returned to Active Duty status and deployed to Korea on her 3rd deployment with her unit in 2014. Still in searing pain from her injuries, Sharon discovered that she was pregnant– after she had been told by medical staff that due to her injuries, she would never be able to bear children. She was in such excruciating pain that the medical staff put her on bed rest with pain meds, which was rescinded after two weeks due to her unit’s annual inventory.
Two weeks later Sharon went into labor and was taken to Samsung International Hospital where her son Yerik was born on April 23, 2014. At 23 weeks Yerik Israel Toney weighed just 1.3 pounds. Just the size of his mother’s palm, he clung to life in the NICU and fought bravely for 7 months, and 14 days until he finally passed on November 22, 2014. Sharon was devastated by the experience, having to take a cab from the army base to the hospital NICU to be with her newborn son, and being so far away from home.
One has to wonder why a twice-forward deployed combat-wounded veteran was taken off of bed rest and had to spend her own funds to get to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Samsung Hospital. That was a serious failure of leadership and is a story in and of itself. On top of it all Sharon had an additional surgery in 2015 and finally, the ordeal of being blown up in Iraq got to be too much for her body. Sharon was medically retired from the army in November 2015.
At this point in life, most 100 percent total disability medically retired soldiers would look to take it easy. But not Sharon. She stated, “I want to give back to the Veterans that paved the way for me to serve.” In 2016 Sharon Toney-Finch started her own nonprofit foundation, the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation, named after her son. The YIT Foundation’s dual mission is to house homeless veterans and to provide aid and support to premature babies and their mothers. Sharon’s mom, who has extensive experience in the nonprofit world, helped her daughter to navigate the process of setting up a nonprofit foundation and financially getting it into operation. Medically unable to drive, Sharon’s dad takes her to her appointments every day.
Completed veteran housing project in Saugerties, New York Saugerties NY (April 26, 2023)
The first home for homeless veterans was established in Maryland in 2016, and to date, the YIT Foundation has provided housing to over 3,700 homeless veterans. Currently, Sharon’s foundation is in the process of erecting a building to house homeless Vietnam War veterans in Montgomery, New York. Home Depot has graciously supplied support with building materials. In the mission to support premature babies, the YIT foundation provides support to military and low-income families with transportation to the hospital, meals, and a place to stay. The foundation provides monthly supplies of diapers, clothing, and formula to prematurely born children. The support for the children continues throughout their lives, including scholarship money for college.
The YIT Foundation has two major fundraising events upcoming this spring. The first is the Walk For Survival on May 20th; and the All White attire Gala at USMA on June 17th, run in partnership with Soldiers For Life.
While keeping up with the demands of running a nonprofit organization Sharon Toney-Finch’s medical ordeal is still ongoing. In February of this year, she had an additional surgery to remove scar tissue from the metal plate in her skull. In total, she has had over 80 surgeries, all under general anesthesia–an astronomical price for a purple ribbon with a medal containing a George Washington profile. Sharon tells me in spite of what she has endured, “I still miss the Army, I made lifelong friends there!” Sharon Toney-Finch has defined bravery and courage in so many ways, and represents the best of what being a woman in America means. It was an honor to spend time talking to her.
Steve has been an educator and an athletic coach for nearly 30 years. For much of that time, he was a successful high school and college football coach in Connecticut. After the events of 9-11-01, many of Steve’s former athletes joined the military. In the succeeding years, they didn’t return the same way they went out, and this led Steve to become interested in veteran’s affairs. In 2017 he conducted the first annual Comfort Walk, a 70-mile 3-day trek from Manchester CT to Providence RI on Memorial Day Weekend to raise awareness of veteran’s mental health issues. In 2017 Steve also assisted the veterans of the 1-24th Infantry Regiment in their Walk Of Life.
Steve regularly participates in the CT Run For The Fallen and has helped out in other veteran’s events and presentations including hosting a veteran’s assembly and classroom visit to his school. A civilian, Steve comes from a military family as the son of USMA 1952 and grandson November 1918. He has previously authored articles on fisheries issues and is looking forward to contributing his writing talents to military matters and veterans advocacy.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.