The Right Stuff- Honoring Women Veterans
“I was the first woman jet mechanic in the Navy…that was over 30 years ago…and until today no one has ever said thank you, or honored me for what I did,” explained Denise, one of approximately 300 women Veterans from southern Oregon who gathered at the VA Roseburg Auditorium to honor women Veterans. The event was held to say thank you and to recognize and honor the tremendous contribution women Veterans have made to our military service and to our country.
There are more than 25 thousand women Veterans in Oregon- nearly 2 million nationwide. And while women have served in every conflict since the Revolutionary war, historically their role has been controversial and their contributions obscured. Women Veterans have experienced “obscurity” regarding their accomplishments during their military service and this event was designed to emphasize that their contributions are not forgotten and to recognize the importance of their myriad accomplishments, dedication and commitment to serving. In addition to the extensive mixture of informational materials provided about services designed around the needs of women Veterans, the auditorium was decorated with fresh flowers, posters and sprays of red, white and blue balloons accented the white tablecloths. “This is really beautiful,”–a young woman remarked. Indeed, it was.
Diversity in age and with all branches of the military represented, the mix was impressive. The oldest Woman Veteran in attendance, a 97 year old who began her military service in the Auxiliary in 1942 and worked in radio communications, to the youngest, aged 27, who served in the Army from 2002-2006, including a 16 month tour in Iraq as a driver and gunner. One woman Veteran in attendance is still on active duty- on leave from Ft. Lewis, WA. - still serving after 37 years of dedicated service to our country.
There were shared stories of triumph and tragedy and talk of overcoming severe disabilities through unique VA programs. Rhee, one of the women Veterans who shared her story with her comrades, recently came home from participating in the VA’s National Sports Clinic event. She was encouraged to attend through staff in the VA Roseburg Healthcare System’s (VARHS) Prosthetics service. She explained her story before a captivated audience. She was the only women on the Roseburg “team” of seven disabled Veterans that traveled to the week-long sports camp in San Diego. Her face glowed with pride as she explained, “The program changed my life.” She talked about how her confidence soared as she was supported by volunteers determined to support her in any and all ways as she was taught how to surf! She encouraged the crowd to join and be part of some of the unique services and events the VA offers.
Many other stories were shared. As example, accounts of being the ‘first’ to serve in their unit, station, or service in a particular role were common. Stories of the day validated the diverse roles and assignments of our military women, with each one stamped and sealed with commonality and similarities of what it’s like being female and in the military. The room was filled with memories shared and camaraderie; a nurse who served in the Vietnam War and Dr. Marcia Hall, VA Roseburg Women’s Program Manager and coordinator and MC of the event, brought her 95 year old mother who served as a physician in WWII. Dr. Hall’s mom teased her daughter as she hollered to her from the audience, “ Hey!, you forgot to talk about the oldest commissioned service – the Public Health Service which was the medical core for the Coast Guard!” In the spirit of fun, much laughter ensued, and her mother’s correction was acknowledged! More seriously though, reflections on the Women Veterans Memorial in Wash. D.C. were also described- the location which memorializes all women Veterans in our history. Powerful sensations filled the room; reflection, memory and honor were felt in the energy of the place.
Keynote speaker Val Conley, Deputy Director of Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, spoke of how WWII women Veterans paved the hard path for women who serve today. Many organizations were present from the community: American Women Veterans Association (AWVA), Community Veteran Centers, the Veterans Benefits Office in Portland, and County Veteran Service Office – all present to provide the women Veterans with information on available resources. The Women Veterans Health Program at VARHS provided lunch, gifts, and t-shirts reading- “Oregon Women Veterans Proudly Served” designed specifically for the event by women Veterans in the community. “We wanted Women Veterans to feel valued,” explained Dr. Hall, “and to show our appreciation and recognize their service and accomplishments. Based on the attendance and event feedback, we achieved our goal.”
The Honor Event was funded through an outreach grant secured through the Women Veterans Health Program. The gathering also served to highlight the changing era in Women Veterans Health Services within the VA. Building a women’s health team at each VA site with providers who are proficient, interested and engaged in women’s health is a national VA goal. The Honor Event introduced the Roseburg Women’s Health primary care team to the packed auditorium and encouraged women Veterans to enroll, engage and participate in their needed healthcare services.
Carol Bogedain, new director for VARHS, addressed the gathering and asked, “How many women in the audience are, or have been employed by the VA?” More than half of the audience raised their hands.
The importance of women Veterans serving Veterans is an immeasurable contribution to Veteran centered care. A poignant moment occurred when all the women Veterans stood to sing the National Anthem to VARHS leadership –and as one Veteran remarked, “300 women Veterans standing in one room singing together with the Roseburg VA director and the leadership present, was a very powerful feeling – we were all together…I have never participated in anything like this since I left the military. ”Bringing women Veterans together to celebrate and honor their service is a positive way to support their connections with one another and break the isolation and invisibility of women Veterans frequently cited as an aftermath of their service.
The event closed with a positive challenge presented to build “Peer to Peer” networks - women Veterans serving other women Veterans as a means to continue their demonstrated contributions to serving others. Bringing a meal to a homebound Veteran, offering a ride to an appointment, joining the AWVA, caring for a pet, visiting a hospitalized woman Veteran, or forming a women Veterans walking group to promote health – the opportunities are endless and possible.
The event brought forth and emphasized the importance of women in our military from past, to present and future and showcased by example, a living demonstration of how all women Veterans communities need to come together and share their history and experiences on common ground. And most importantly, provide support and honor each other.