WASHINGTON — Hundreds of women who played a key role in coordinating American and French efforts in World War I but spent decades without full recognition of their work could soon be honored with Congress’ highest civilian award.

Earlier this week, a pair of senators introduced new legislation to bestow the Congressional Gold Medal on the so-called “Hello Girls,” a group of more than 400 women connected to the U.S. Army Signal Corps who worked as switchboard operators at command outposts in Europe during the conflict.

The women’s work required them to be bilingual and serve as a go-between for the allied forces as they fought on the front lines. But it took more than 60 years after the war for the U.S. government to formally recognize them as veterans.

“The Hello Girls stepped up to the plate and got the job done, and they played an important role in our nation’s history,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who is co-sponsoring the bill with Montana Democrat Jon Tester. “They pioneered the way for female veterans, and like all of our nation’s service members, they should be recognized for their bravery and contributions.”

Elizabeth Cobbs, author of a biography on the women, in a statement dubbed the honorees “America’s first women soldiers” who “occupy an important place in our history as true pioneers.” She has argued their decades-long quest for recognition of their service helped advance women’s rights across the nation.

Yet their work is still relatively unknown by the general public.

Tester and Heller are working with relatives of the women — all now deceased — to help highlight their work and push for the congressional honor.

“Their story was tucked away for 100 years,” said Carolyn Timbie, granddaughter of Grace Banker, the chief operator of the unit. “And to think that they might be honored in 2018 with a Congressional Gold Medal for their service to our country is quite overwhelming.”

Tester noted that the women took the Army oath as a requirement for their work, and said history has shown that they “were faster and more accurate than any enlisted man at connecting men on the battlefield with military leaders.”

“They blazed a new path for women on the front lines in France, and the Congressional Gold Medal will honor their service as well as their fight for recognition.”

No timetable has been set for hearings or legislative consideration of the measure. Lawmakers will return from their July 4 recess next week.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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