Sister Soldier Project by Arroyo Grande woman to be preserved in library

Many photos received by the Sister Soldier Project from women in the military show the soldiers with the products they received.
Many photos received by the Sister Soldier Project from women in the military show the soldiers with the products they received.

The Sister Soldier Project ended its mission of sending hair-care products — shampoo, conditioner, hair gels and other grooming items — to female soldiers of color in April 2012.

Over a five-year period, thousands of volunteers from across the country packed boxes to be shipped to the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In return, they received heartfelt thank-you notes, letters, cards, inspirational emails and photographs from soldiers expressing appreciation for the supplies and sharing the experience of serving their country far from home.

Now, the stories of these women will be preserved for future generations.

The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute acquired the documents in July from Myraline Morris Whitaker, an Arroyo Grande resident who founded the Sister Soldier Project.

The library, which houses more than 3,200 manuscripts, 100,000 volumes of books and periodicals, and films, photos and audiovisual material, has installed the documents into its collection, along with other documents chronicling the lives of American women who have made outstanding contributions.

"You can go into the computer and say, 'I want to know about black women in the military,' and you will see the letters," Whitaker said. "They have letters from Ruth Handler (former president of Mattel Inc. and inventor of the Barbie doll), Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Julia Child. To have those soldiers' letters as part of that kind of legacy ... I'm just over the moon happy."

The gift to the Schlesinger Library is the culmination of a journey that began in 2012 when Whitaker decided to share the collection she had stored in her garage with the public. In January of that year, she heard Paul Gardullo, curator of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African-American History and Culture, speak at Cal Poly about Joseph Schwartz, a photographer who had spent his life documenting the virtues of diversity.

Whitaker initially thought the Smithsonian would be an ideal place for the collection. The Smithsonian, however, is primarily interested in tangible artifacts such as slave shackles, Harriet Tubman's furnishings and Louis Armstrong's trumpet that tell the story of the African-American experience, she said.

Two years later, while visiting a friend in New York, Whitaker heard about the Schlesinger Library on Harvard's campus in Cambridge, Mass. She contacted the library, and the curator expressed interest in the documents, saying the library lacked information about women in the military after World War II, and what their hopes, dreams and aspirations were at the time.

Whitaker packed up her collection and sent them to the library for review. She's still working with a digital archivist to download about 14,000 emails.

"Early on in my communications with the Sister Soldiers, I realized that the two Gulf Wars are really the first time American servicewomen had been installed in combat zones in such numbers, not merely as medical personnel, but in most cases, in the same constant danger as their male counterparts," Whitaker said.

"Some have died and others were injured. So, on top of the family and home life sacrifices all our military personnel are subjected to, serving overseas, these mothers, daughters, sisters and wives all had a real chance of never returning to their homes and families."

"The Sister Soldier Project archives tell many of their stories, their feelings and emotions," Whitaker added. "To my knowledge, there are few, if any other compiled resources, containing such riches. Americans should never forget that bravery, duty, sacrifice and honor are truly gender neutral."

The Sister Soldier Project began in 2007 after Whitaker was inspired by a San Luis Obispo County man who had been sending care packages to soldiers. Whitaker also remembered hearing a story from a former colleague, recalling how she would have to leave the room whenever a fellow Marine, an African-American soldier, pressed her hair.

Whitaker is not a hairstylist — she is principal at Central Coast of California Hospitality, a hotel management firm — and does not have a military background. But she understood from personal experience as an African-American woman that managing thick, frizzy hair in an environment that requires hairstyles to conform to a specific standard is no easy task.

Whitaker recently discovered that, due in part to the Sister Soldier Project, the Pentagon has been working to change the regulations regarding grooming and provide products for all women in the military.

"We received a bit of criticism at the beginning for sending hair care products," Whitaker said. "I wanted people to know, we were not trying to create beauty queens, but to have people understand the difficulty in complying with the military standards of grooming without the essentials."

Whitaker set out to assemble as many hair care products as she could, initially sending packages of her own unused items to four female soldiers. She then approached her book club in Los Angeles, and before long, she had a group of women who were hosting regular packing parties.

As word spread about the packing parties, groups from New York, Florida, Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago asked to participate. At one point, the American Medical Association sent its entire staff to do a packing party in Chicago, Whitaker said. The largest packing party on Long Island, N.Y., drew 1,000 people. All told, volunteers helped to ship more than 5,000 boxes to soldiers during the five years the project existed.

"The American people are extremely generous and wanted to help," Whitaker said. "When people learned about it, they wanted to do something. The women would tell me the same thing; that people would reach out to them and ask them, 'What do you need or want?'"

Through it all, what impressed Whitaker most was the grace and gratitude of the soldiers.

"There was never a complaint, not once, about being away from home," she said. "It was their duty and their service. Other people should know the sacrifices the women have made and how heroic they were."

Sister Soldiers letters by The Tribune