What Does A Veteran Look Like? Women Who Enlisted Break The Mold

By Chris Ehrmann The Saginaw News, Mich.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) On this Veteran's Day meet Beth Alford. The Indiana native served in the Navy in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2013. She is also serving in Navy reserves as a naval chief petty officer.

SAGINAW, Mich.

When people think of veterans, women who serve in the military don't always come to mind.

Most people think of an older, white male Vietnam veteran with patches and a hat, says Andrea Norton, who served in the U.S. Air Force.

"Society at large doesn't recognize women as veterans," said Norton, now a woman veterans program manager for the Department of Veteran Affairs in Saginaw. "I guarantee if you ask anybody what's in your head, what does a veteran look like, they're gonna have one specific image."

But women who've served their country are out there. The Veteran Health Agency Support Service Center says there are 529 women veterans in Bay County, 986 in Saginaw County and 374 in Midland County.

Beth Alford, director of military student affairs at Saginaw Valley State University, is one of them. The Indiana native served in the Navy in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2013. She is also serving in Navy reserves as a naval chief petty officer.

"I've heard in my groups of women that sometimes their service fields may be a little bit more invisible than others," Alford said. "When people think about veterans, they don't think of a 36-year-old female with three kids that works at SVSU, they don't think, 'Oh yeah, she's had two deployments.'"

Alford said women veterans aren't seeking recognition for their service beyond what other vets receive during times such as Veterans Day on Sunday, Nov. 11. But she says it's tough when things happen like a group of men at a gas station thank her husband for his service but ignore her.

"Honestly, I don't need someone to thank me, I don't expect that, but it is sort of a slap in the face," she said. Norton said the point of the military is not to be individualistic, but feels women have to do extra work to get recognized.

"We all look the same in the military for a reason, it's about cohesion and being a team," she said. But the military can be a "good old boys club" and women have to prove themselves to get "half the amount of respect" that men get, she said.

Being a woman in the military brings its own set of challenges, such as dealing with sexual harassment -- or even sexual assault.

According to a VA fact sheet, one in four women veterans say that have experienced sexual trauma or sexual harassment during their service.

"You would be hard pressed to find a single woman who served that didn't experience sexual harassment, it's part of the culture," Norton said, adding that she experienced discrimination as well when she served. "I had a tech sergeant who told me he didn't believe women should be wearing the uniform."

Haley Tacey, a student at Saginaw Valley and a veteran from Saginaw, says she experienced sexual harassment from a superior officer while she was in the U.S. Marine Corps.

She and another woman in the service reported him and after an investigation he was forced to retire, she said. Tacey said she faced criticism from others for reporting it.

Some of the terms used to describe women in the military, Tacey said, included terms like "wooks" and "walking mattresses."

Her advice for women in the military is to stick up and defend your morals in those types of instances and there are avenues for women to follow, like each base having an equal opportunity adviser to address issues such as sexual harassment.

Despite that incident, she said she is proud to be in the military and to have served her country.

"I just learned a lot from the military," she said, adding that it made her more mature and helped her to go to college, too.

Norton said things have gotten better for women over the years as more women are serving in roles that were traditionally held by men, but still more work is needed.

"There might be policies, but culture has to catch up to policy and sometimes policy has to catch up to culture," Norton said.

Norton said many women who have finished their service are reluctant to contact the VA, but the agency has made strides in recent years to improve its care to women, like the creation of Norton's role in 2010.

"When I was first hired on to this role a little over two years ago, they committed in their facility's strategic plan to prove women's health," she said. "We've been able to expand our staff and develop a more cohesive program."

She added that women have unique needs and that there should be equitable services because everyone has unique needs and all women want is equality.

The VA has services that can help women, and male veterans as well, like talking with a military sexual trauma coordinator who offers counseling, support and help with treatment planning through case management.

Alford said that there has been a lot of progress over the years like at the Aleta Lutz VA Hospital in Saginaw County, which has a robust women veteran's clinic for medical needs that are unique to women.

"I'm the forever optimist, but I think that we've come a long way. I know when I host workshops here, female veterans are always asked about or talked about," she said. "The experience they (women) bring can be so valuable when people might not think that it is."

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