On Nov. 17, nearly 200 women veterans gathered for the 27th annual Tribute to Women Veterans luncheon at the Christy Banquet Center in St. Louis. American Legion St. Louis Service Women’s Post 404 has hosted the event for the past 18 years, honoring its members and other women veterans with door prizes, food, musical entertainment and a guest speaker.
"Our Tribute’s focus on female veterans helps them receive the recognition they richly deserve," said Shirley Janes, a Post 404 Legionnaire and chairman of the Tribute committee. "It allows women to meet some of the women who paved the way for future generations to serve side by side with their male counterparts."
Attendees consisted of women from all war eras, along with staff from the St. Louis VA Women’s Clinic at John Cochran Medical Center, Missouri Veterans Commission and other organizations dedicated to supporting women veterans. They enjoyed musical entertainment throughout the luncheon by the Air Force Band of Mid-America and listened to guest speaker U.S. Army Capt. Julie Hurst, a nurse with the Army Reserve, share her experiences on the battlefield and at home.
The event is one that many members treasure. "I never miss this event because 98 percent of the women here are veterans, so we have that common bond, that common service and camaraderie," said Shakeya Calloway, a member of Post 404 and Army veteran from the Iraq War. "They (Post 404) are always doing something for a good cause, and I enjoy being a part of it."
However, the Tribute is just one of the many ways Missouri’s only all-women veterans post is reaching out to its sister veterans in need and increasing membership.
Chartered in 1946, Post 404 has nearly 300 members and leads efforts in the St. Louis community for all patriotic services, troop homecomings and women veterans events. Overall, their participation list is endless.
Members fix dinner for residents at the St. Louis VA Medical Center Fisher House, conduct military funeral honors, volunteer for the VA National Veterans Gold Age Games, exhibit at veterans career expos, and attend VA Welcome Home programs and "Stand Up for Women Veterans" events, which focus on at-risk and homeless women veterans. They also connect with women and men before, during and after deployments by attending National Guard and reserve Yellow Ribbon events.
"We are always there talking to the women and men, letting them know that we are there for them and making sure they know their benefits," Janes said.
When Post 404 members are not participating in veteran-related community events, they "just ask" women if they are a veteran and invite them to a post meeting with a free lunch. "Women veterans do not wear a baseball cap or jacket that says U.S. Army, etc.," Janes said. "So you don’t know who they are unless you walk up and just ask. One of our past commanders used to say that you can tell by the way a woman walks if she is a veteran: They stand up straight and walk like they know where they’re going, because they do."
Additionally, Post Commander Gloria Barnes said, "We talk to all these women and they are so impressed that Post 404 is an all-womens American Legion post. I think that helps draw women to us, and because we are friendly, caring, and we help each other."
Post 404’s doors are open for all women veterans, even non-members, in the Girlfriends Project: Women Veterans Helping Women Veterans. The Girlfriends Project – a partnership between Post 404 and the St. Louis VA Women’s Clinic – helps returning military women transition back into the civilian environment by mentoring them.
"These women have a need to just talk," Janes said. "It’s neat for us because if you look at our members, we are 40 and older – aside from a few – so these women need the big sisters and moms that they can talk to and not have to dumb down their conversations with. It’s not like talking to a civilian where you have to explain everything. With us, they can just say it and we understand."
Post 404 also hosts an annual Girlfriends Project baby shower for the female veterans that they mentor. Last year, 30 women were given baby strollers, clothes and other necessities.
As Post 404 members continue to reach out to younger women veterans in need, they too are caring for and preserving its members’ war-era stories. The post’s historian is recording stories from the handful of World War II women veterans as a keepsake for family members and Post 404.
St. Louis native Dorothy Showman joined the U.S. Coast Guard SPAR in 1943. She attended boot camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., specialized as a Yeoman and returned to St. Louis to work for a lieutenant who was in charge of the postal service. As part of her job, she encouraged men coming through the Ninth Naval District to buy war bonds. She was promoted to Chief Petty Officer Acting and "my commander was so pleased when I got that promotion that he had a great big sign made for my desk, congratulating me," Showman said. "It was so nice to be appreciated."
Wilma Nations joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1944 as a payroll clerk. "As I tell my friends, all I can remember is a man that used to come once a month and sit with me," Nations said. "That was the day of the manual typewriter, so no erasers to correct mistakes, but his records were perfect. He was so polite, and I often wonder to this day what happened to him."
Barnes’ goal during her tenure as commander is to reach 300 members. "We will grow because we have something to offer our potential members," she said. "Our post is one of friends, instant camaraderie and a shared sisterhood. You are accepted immediately when you walk in the door because you’re walking into a room of friends."