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 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 chairwoman 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 organizations dedicated to supporting women veterans. 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 an 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-female 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.
Members fix dinner for residents at the St. Louis VA Medical Center Fisher House, conduct military funeral honors, volunteer for the VA National Veterans Golden 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, "I think being an all-female post helps draw women to us, and because we are friendly, caring and we help each other," said Post Commander Gloria Barnes.
Post 404's doors are open for all women veterans, even non-members, in the Girlfriends Project. The Girlfriends Project – a partnership between Post 404 and the St. Louis VA Women's Clinic at John Cochran Medical Center – helps returning military women transition back into the civilian environment by mentoring them.
"These women have a need to just talk," Janes said. "They can talk to us and not have to dumb down their conversations. 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 they mentor. Last year, 30 women were given baby strollers, clothes and more. Meanwhile, 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 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."