After 220 years, the New York Army National Guard promoted its first female general—Pittsburgh native Rosetta Y. Burke. But Rosetta didn’t start her military career in 1962 as a soldier. After training at the Harlem School of Nursing (in New York City), she entered the Army as a nurse, rising through the medical ranks as she continued her professional training—adding to her resume two college degrees and a diploma from the War College.
“It was not necessarily an open thing for women to go into combat when I first entered,” Rosetta reflects. “More often than not, women came in as nurses or administrative kinds of positions like in the kitchen or mailroom.” But General Burke knows her history, and she is quick to set the record straight. “If you look at the history of women in the military, you will see that women have been in combat for a long time. We dressed ourselves as men and joined the military. If you go back to the revolution, you’re talking about Molly Pitcher. A musket ran between her legs as she was firing the cannon. So we’ve always been in the military and we’ve always been in combat.”
Like the old joke goes, why do bank robbers rob banks? ‘Cause that’s where the money is. And so, by analogy, that’s why our oral history project often makes house calls to preserve the stories of local veterans–that where the stories are.
We are grateful to Donna and Chuck Torisky for their hospitality in hosting our interview with Major General Rosetta Burke. Donna and Rosetta grew up in the West End. Lifelong friends and pals since the 1940s.
When Donna called us, she asked if we could preserve Rosetta’s amazing story while she was here in Pittsburgh. It was, indeed, short notice, but still an opportunity that we could not miss. We’ll make it so, we replied.
As the Torisky’s house guest, Rosetta was briefly in town to be honored by her high school alma mater. She currently lives in Albany, New York, at least when she’s not travelling the country speaking to the many civic groups and professional organizations in which she is involved.
We interviewed Rosetta on a Sunday. It was one of those beautifully bright, mid-September days. The kind that softly hints at the changing season. Just gorgeous. “We get a lot of natural light in our place,” Donna advised us. And she was right. It nicely accented our impromptu interview set in the Torisky living room. Todd DePastino conducted the interview. Kevin Farkas managed the recording equipment and photo-documented our afternoon with Rosetta and the Torisky family.
Listen to the complete audio interview, produced by the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative, in partnership with the Veterans Breakfast Club. It was recorded September 14, 2014 in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, at the home of Donna and Charles Torisky. Interviewer: Todd DePastino. Audio: Kevin Farkas.