As Millie Dunn Veasey – a military and civil rights pioneer and member of the greatest generation – celebrated her 100th birthday this week, the inevitable question came up. What’s her secret for living a long, productive life?
“I can’t remember. What did I say?” Veasey said, throwing her head back and laughing merrily. “Oh yeah – always have fun. Stay busy and be happy.”
The nearly 50 people gathered at a North Raleigh restaurant to honor Veasey did not hesitate to share their thoughts about her.
“She’s an angel,” said Herbert Keith, an Air Force veteran who did two tours in Vietnam and who will turn 80 in March.
Sharon Campbell, a 55-year-old retired Army first sergeant who served from 1986 until 2015, said Veasey’s service was important, especially for black women.
“She was an enlisted soldier and she left the military a staff sergeant,” Campbell said. “Most women don’t make that rank, especially black women, because of education. That’s how you get your rank in the Army.”
Veasey has worked to stay busy every decade of her life.
A Raleigh native and one of six children, she graduated from Washington High School in 1942 and enlisted in what was then known as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
“I didn’t weigh more than 102 pounds and didn’t know how to tie my tie,” she wrote in a living history of her life.
Drills in the rain
Veasey enlisted with three other African American women from Raleigh. All four were stationed in Colorado for basic training.
“The first time it rained I remember lying in bed,” Veasey wrote. “The sergeant came in and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘It’s raining. I can’t do drills in the rain.’ She said, ‘Get up! The Army doesn’t care if it’s raining!’”
During World War II, she was a member of the 6888 – the “Six-Triple Eight” – Central Postal Battalion. The unit was the only all-black, all-female battalion to serve overseas during World War II. Veasey served in France and England with the unit, which sorted and routed mountains of mail for millions of American service members and civilians.
Veasey said the most memorable moment of serving in the Army was V-E Day, the official end of World War II in the European theater. She was on leave in London, beneath Big Ben, when the Allies declared victory.
“The church bells rang. There was the changing of the guards in front of Buckingham Palace, all of the horses, the parade, all of the pomp and circumstance that they do in England. ... I was standing under Big Ben!” she said with a proud laugh.
Veasey was selected for Officer Candidate School at the war’s end, but she discharged in 1945 to continue her education. She returned to Raleigh and attended St. Augustine’s College on the G.I. Bill. She graduated in 1953 with a degree in business administration and a minor in English. She taught business education and eighth grade English in Matthews, Va., then came back to Raleigh, where she worked as secretary to the St. Aug’s president, James Boyer, before retiring in 1986.
She and her husband, Warren L. Veasey, had two children – Juanita and Warren Jr., who both live in California.
After joining the NAACP, Veasey eventually became the first woman president of the organization’s Wake County chapter. In 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement, she hosted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at her sister’s home during his visit to Raleigh.
“I found him to be a most remarkable young man,” Veasey said in a short film on UNC-TV last year that chronicled her 99th birthday. “Always with dignity and was always interested in what you were doing and what that individual was doing, and to inspire them to do more.”
On Veasey’s 98th birthday, a flag that had flown over the State Capitol building was presented to her by former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory. She also cherishes a flag that was given to her by former President George Bush. And she met former President Barack Obama at a presidential town hall meeting at Fort Lee, Va., in 2016.
“He walked over to me with a big smile and I jumped up and said, ‘I have to get up to salute you. I’m proud to stand with the women of the military today. I want to salute you as the commander in chief.’ He saluted me and I saluted him, and it was just a thrill. He was wonderful. It was the visit of a lifetime.”
Veasey bowed her head and pondered in silence when asked what advice she would give young people, especially women, today.
Family is important, she said, along with church, getting an education and forming friendships. And, of course, staying busy.
“Keep busy and do something for somebody.”
Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald