Last Wednesday, I was honored and proud to be invited to the SHOUT! Art by Women Veterans show put on in San Francisco by Swords to Plowshares, a great organization. It was amazing for me to be around so many other women veterans at one time. Normally, when I go to any veterans events, it's just like my time in the Army: I am in the minority, usually by a lot. Women are only 15% of the military, and since we are less likely to self-identify as veterans, are also less present in veterans organizations and activities.
The morning of the event, I also did a radio show with Tia Christopher from Swords to Plowshares on KPFA. We were both amazed that the host of the radio show was also a female veteran, who was part of the first Gulf War. As veterans make up a smaller and smaller proportion of the civilian population, I'm always pleasantly surprised to meet another vet - and when it is a woman, who helped pave the way for all of us who followed, I'm thrilled.
Being there, surrounded by strong and amazing women veterans, was fairly intense. Please don't misunderstand me -- I love my brothers in arms, too. Truly, we have shared experiences that civilians can never understand. But women in a combat zone do face some added pressures. We must deal with sexual harassment, and be wary of sexual assault. Women have to keep their guard up not only around the enemy, but even among some of their fellow soldiers. We also face pressure not to report sexual harassment just because we "can't take a joke." Being with a group of creative, strong women -- and those friends and loved ones who support them -- was moving.
And then, something happened that truly shocked me.
An Army LTC was at the event in uniform. "I have to share this with you," he told a group of us. He explained that a local teacher asked her students to draw pictures of what the word "veteran" meant to them, and lots of students drew American flags, others drew soldiers at war. So she asked him to come into her class to talk to the students about what it means to be a veteran. But among all the other drawings, there was one that stood out.
The LTC pulled it out and showed it to us.
It was a drawing of a pretty, smiling girl in an Army uniform.
Mind you, as an Army vet, I have been well-trained in the philosophy of "suck it up and drive on." I can speak to hundreds of people calmly.
But when I saw that drawing, tears filled my eyes. I had to turn around and pull myself together.
Since then, I've been thinking a lot about why I had such a strong emotional reaction to that drawing. It's funny how some things just hit you... My twin nephews are really into the Army, and at first, they didn't believe that I was really a soldier, because I'm a girl. When I go places with groups of vets, I often have to explain that I'm not "just" a spouse or girlfriend. While I was still in the Army, freshly back from Iraq, this was particularly acute -- if a group of us went out, some well-meaning civilian would invariably buy the guys a round of beers for their service in the war, while we female vets rolled our eyes. No high-and-tight, no free beers...
I'm used to speaking out about veterans issues, and the special issues that women veterans face. Used to biting my tongue when I'm asked if I was allowed to carry a gun in Iraq because I'm "just a girl." Used to explaining that yes, women are actually in combat, they have died in combat, earned Silver Stars for their valor in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Used to being patient and calm and siting facts and figures and statistics to prove my points.
What I am not used to is having a little girl think first of someone like me when she thinks of what a veteran is. Not used to feeling so included, having our service recognized by an outsider without prompting, being ... accepted.
So thank you, Isha, for your amazing drawing - and for all the hope it symbolizes for me. Maybe in the future, a similar drawing won't come as such a beautiful shock to a woman veteran who comes after me.
[Note: This is cross-posted at Vet Voice]