Growing up in Moore, South Carolina, Elizabeth “Libby” Steadman had wanted to become a nurse from a very young age. In 1966, she joined the second-ever nursing class at Clemson, the fourth year Clemson had women’s residence halls on campus. As she walked to and from class, she remembers seeing her fellow students in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps practicing drill and ceremony on Bowman Field. Among them were women.
“I remember specifically seeing groups of women wearing Air Force uniforms,” she recalls. “They were called the Angel Flyers, and they functioned as hostesses for the men’s honorary Air Force society. I aspired to be like them.”
At the time, the Vietnam War was making headlines almost every day. Steadman would watch the female cadets in their crisp uniforms marching in neat rows across the grass and feel a sharp desire to serve. But she didn’t want to put her parents through the stress of their only child going to Vietnam, so she resisted enlisting.
“Of course, 20 years later, I put them through two wars when they were much older,” she says with a wry laugh.
Steadman earned her associate degree in nursing in 1968 and went to work for the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She joined the Army Reserve in 1974 and continued to work at MUSC while drilling with Army Reserve hospital units, steadily gaining leadership experience and rising up the ranks.
In 1990, she deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm. Her unit was assigned as the farthest forward MASH, supporting the 3rd Armored Division as it pushed inland. In 1995, she became the chief nurse of the 818th Medical Brigade in Atlanta, commanding all Army Reserve medical units in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.
Less than a year after 9/11, Steadman returned to war. This time, she served as part of the 360th Civil Affairs Brigade, attached to the 18th Airborne Corps — the first major unit to go into Afghanistan after special operations forces. By that time, Steadman had been promoted to colonel, which made her the highest-ranking female service member in Afghanistan.
“It wasn’t scary for me because it was just so interesting,” she remembers. “There were always mortar rounds coming into Kabul, but they had terrible aim, so they’d land in the street mostly.”
Steadman retired from the Army in 2004 and from MUSC in 2012. In 2005, her uniform was enshrined in the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Today, she lives in the ACE Basin of Colleton County and continues to serve by volunteering as a primary care provider at a free clinic in Beaufort.
Reflecting on her career in nursing, Steadman marvels at how much the profession has changed since she first stepped onto the Clemson campus as a wide-eyed and hopeful nursing student:
“I really do encourage people to go into nursing because there are so many different opportunities in that career field now. When I graduated, you could either work in a doctor’s office or in a hospital. Now, there are so many other things that can be done. I’m so thankful for all the opportunities nursing has afforded me, and it all started at Clemson.”