Women warriors taught men how to operate nuclear submarines and aircraft, saw active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and served in all branches of the military.
But, in the stories they shared Sunday at a Sacramento conference, many often don’t consider themselves veterans and don’t secure the benefits they deserve because the Veterans Administration and much of the outside world don’t seem to regard them as veterans either.
Those challenges were addressed at the Women Veterans Alliance Unconference at McClellan Park, where about 200 female veterans learned how to access the educational benefits, home loans and health care they’re entitled to, cope with PTSD and MST (military sexual trauma) and the substance abuse that sometimes follows.
For years, “Women veterans were unrecognizable in the community – veterans services are very male-focused, and women often get pushed aside. We’re not weak; we won’t let women get pushed aside,” said Melissa Washington, a Navy veteran who said she got so frustrated with feeling invisible that she formed the Roseville-based Women Veterans Alliance in 2005 “to empower and strengthen the sisterhood between women veterans.”
The alliance now has chapters in Sacramento, Yolo, Placer, Solano and Nevada counties as well as the East and South Bay, said Washington.
There are about 2 million female veterans nationwide, around 200,000 in California, and some are struggling with the same challenges facing male veterans, from homelessness to joblessness and domestic abuse, said Washington, whose organization has helped half a dozen homeless female veterans connect with the services they need to find jobs and shelter. Washington has partnered with the nonprofit California Capital Women’s Business Center to help veterans launch careers.
Women were not authorized to serve in combat until 2013, “and up to 50 percent of women don’t refer to themselves as veterans because they never were in combat or served in peace time and don’t understand their value,” said Washington, 44. “I’ve helped women veterans who were couch surfing or sleeping in cars.”
Ann Duson, 52, said she served with the U.S. Army on active duty from 1982-87, and left the service suffering from PTSD.
“I was raped and assaulted in the military, and I fell into the bottle for 19 years trying to drink it away,” Duson said. “There was no female veterans clinic, and they sent me to a group with 60 male veterans.”
Duson said she didn’t want other returning female veterans to go through what she did, so the former Sacramento-area resident formed the Women Veterans Unity Group based in Fontana.
The film “Hidden Figures,” about the African American women who played a key role in getting NASA missions airborne, resonated with Lt. Kathy Takayama of Rocklin, a UC Davis grad who served from 1986-90 as a naval nuclear power instructor.
“They wouldn’t trust me driving submarines and aircraft, so I taught them with books in Orlando (Fla.),” Takayama said. “I thought veterans were retired people who fought in foreign wars and served 30 years.”
After meeting Washington, Takayama learned how to list her veteran status on her California driver’s license and now gets free coffee at Starbucks, free meals at various restaurants and 10 percent off on appliances. “It’s saved me thousands of dollars,” said Takayama, 54. “But when I ask, ‘Do you offer a veterans benefit,” I often get, ‘Was your husband a veteran?’ ”
Sarah Lynch of Roseville, who spent four years with the Navy as a “sub hunter tracking Japanese, Russian and Chinese subs in the Pacific region,” said when she finally applied to the VA for benefits, “my gender was put in as male.”
Along with a yoga class, massage, day care, a clothing boutique and a painting class – hence the “unconference” title – Sunday’s event featured talks by Col. Patsy Thompson and her wife, peace activist Barbara Brass, who had to hide their relationship from the military for years. The couple’s story was told in the documentary “Surviving the Silence: Love and Impossible Choices.”
“I wore an invisible shield for a long time, 37 1/2 years of service, living in fear for being kicked out … for being homosexual,” Thompson said.
Though the military abolished the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011, Brass said she was appalled by the number of LGBT suicides in the armed forces. Thompson, of Sacramento, said she didn’t come out to her family until three years ago, at age 80.
The challenges facing women warriors led Jessica Lee, 27, to work at the veterans resource center at UC Merced as part of her work study. “I was a combat medic in Afghanistan for one year,” she said. “When most people picture a veteran, they picture a male who served in Vietnam.”