Strong, resilient, capable — and sometimes invisible.
Those are some of the ways women military veterans see themselves, according to those who gathered Saturday in Tacoma for the 2016 Women Veterans Summit.
The event, sponsored by the state Women Veterans Advisory Committee, the state Department of Veterans Affairs and others, drew women from around the state. They came to learn about veterans’ benefits, staying healthy — physically and mentally — and more.
But many said they came to connect to the unique sense of family that binds military women of all ages.
“We come from different branches of the military, but we all have the same goal,” said Louretha Glasl, an Army veteran from Yelm who was wearing a red T-shirt that identified her as part of the “sisterhood of proud women veterans.”
Glasl, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, joined the Army six months after graduating from high school. She spent 14 years in the Army working several jobs, including refueling combat vehicles and aircraft during Desert Storm in the 1990s. She’s spent an equal number of years as a civilian and now works for the state Veterans Department.
Asked what she wants people to know about women veterans, she replied: “We are strong, capable, intelligent — and we can lead.”
We are strong, capable, intelligent — and we can lead.
Keynote speaker Kayla Williams is an example. A former military Arabic language expert who spent five years in the Army, she now heads the Center for Women Veterans, part of the Veterans Administration.
She spoke of her participation in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, where she served as an interpreter. Her memoir from that experience, “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” was published in 2005.
Williams, who left the Army that year, also talked about what is was like for women veterans upon their return home from Iraq.
While both men and women sometimes felt that the country as a whole had forgotten about the ongoing war, Williams said that as a woman veteran she sometimes felt “isolated, unrecognized.”
In social gatherings, she added, people might spot a group of military personnel and offer to buy “the guys” a beer. But they assumed the women at the table were wives or girlfriends. Someone once asked if her three-legged German shepherd, who had lost a leg after being hit by a car, had been injured in combat. She realized that civilians might be more ready to assume her pet was a veteran, rather than asking if she had served her country.
For the female veterans, it’s been a long haul in the military
Jean “Bell” Belmont, Army veteran
Williams met her husband, Brian McGough, in Iraq. But they didn’t have time to do much dating there. They married in 2005, two years after McGough sustained a brain injury from an explosion that rocked a military convoy he was riding in.
Williams’ second book, “Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War,” recounts the couple’s struggles to hang on through disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment and the eventual path to healing.
Williams told veterans who gathered Saturday that there is help available for those who are also struggling with the aftermath of war and other problems — including care needed as the result of sexual trauma. She also reminded them that spending time with other veterans is one way to heal.
“I share a bond with all those who have gone to war before me,” Williams said. “Rather than being isolated, I am part of a community. You are not alone.”
Jean “Bell” Belmont, who attended Saturday’s event, served 22 years in the Army and is part of the Suquamish Warriors, a group of Native American veterans who attend military funerals and other public events. She regularly wears a hat and vest that display emblems of both her military and Native pride, as well as her ties to other women who served.
“For the female veterans, it’s been a long haul in the military,” Belmont said, “trying to make it through the military in a man’s position.”