More than 200 women with experience and backgrounds as diverse as the military they represent gathered recently for the 20th annual Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) event in San Diego. The three-day training program, supported by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, helps women veterans and female military spouses/partners “find their passion and learn the business savvy skills necessary to turn an idea or start-up into a growing venture.”
The first night of the conference recognized women who were the first to do something that had an impact and paved the way for others as “next-makers.” Immediate American Legion Past National Commander Denise H. Rohan received a First Award for being the first female to lead the largest veterans service organization. Other first award recipients included Delphine Foster, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) first female national commander elected in 2017, and retired U.S. Army Col. Leven Pressley-Sanders, senior Army Fellow at U.S. Army War College.
“A First Award is the most special award that we give at V-WISE because it celebrates those that are out there trailblazing and burning the path for women behind them and making it a possibility for them to dream a bit bigger and think about what they’re doing next,” said Misty Stutsman, IMVF director of the entrepreneurship and small business portfolio. “So that’s why we’re just so honored to have Denise (Rohan) here be able to not only honor everything that she’s done, but the path that she took to get there as well.”
IVMF is the first interdisciplinary national institute in higher education focused on the social, economic, education and policy issues impacting veterans and their families. IVMF has provided programs and services to more than 90,000 veteran, servicemembers and their families since 2011. The organization is unique in that it includes the entire military family, something Rohan championed during her year as national commander and continues to do now. When asked what she will do now that her year as national commander is complete, she replied, “I get to be a mentor for life.”
A heartfelt video biographical introduction described Rohan’s groundbreaking moment to becoming the first American Legion national commander that was 33 years in the making as she first encountered the organization as a young girl in Decatur, Iowa.
She recalled parades and the spirit of patriotism in the community with one parade having a heavy impact on her young life … “When they brought home the body of someone killed in Vietnam. It began at the high school and went up the hill. That memory stayed with me.”
Her parents, Joe And Dorothy Hulbert, set a strong example for their three daughters. Both were active in the local United Church of Christ and Joe was Decatur’s volunteer fire chief. “They served our community and taught us to serve our community too,” Rohan said. “They were supportive of whatever we wanted to do.”
Rohan said she was homesick during her early days in Army training but one day started to realize that she had another family – “the women in basic training with me. They had my back and made sure I was taken care of, and we became sisters.”
Her theme of “Family First” during her time as national commander shines through her history and the direction she’s going. As national commander one of her top priorities was to increase sustainable support given to military families; it was a campaign born out of her own experiences. Rohan served the Family Readiness Group as a civilian volunteer with the Wisconsin Army National Guard 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and 1-105th Cavalry Squadron. She also served with the 115th Fighter Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard Airman and Family Readiness Program.
As both a servicemember and spouse of a servicemember, she knew firsthand how important the family is and what could happen to many of them without support. “There are National Guard and reserve families living in our hometown who are feeling alone and afraid,” Rohan said. “It is vital for us to step up and make connections with those families.”
Delphine Metcalf-Foster also knows the meaning of a military family. Her father was a Buffalo Soldier who inspired her to a life of service. Metcalf-Foster retired in 1991 after 21 years as an Army first sergeant and was the first woman veteran, as well as African-American female, to lead the DAV.
After earning numerous awards for her service during the Gulf War, she joined the DAV. “I never felt like being a woman was a liability for me, even in the Army. I joined to be a part of a team,” Metcalf-Foster said. “I’m proud to be part of the organization’s history as the first woman to lead DAV in its nearly 100-year mission. I wanted to serve our fellow disabled veterans in whatever capacity I could.”
Metcalf-Foster discussed the benefits of partnership. “I’m thrilled, like you are, to see programs that help to harness the potential of our nations women veterans,” she said. “It takes a special kind of individual, one who’s driven, determined and strong to make it in this military. It takes the same kind of person to make it in the business world.”
In addition to the honorees, there was a panel of equally dynamic women who are such strong leaders that it was said half-jokingly that they needed an outstanding leader to manage the panel.
So, to moderate, they had retired Army Command Sgt. Major Cynthia Pritchett, the Army's first and only female command sergeant major of a sub-unified command and a perfect fit for this group. The panel answered several questions, including the best and worst advice they have ever received.
When it came to worst advice, Pritchett joked, “My father telling me not to join the Army. He was a Navy man.”
As for best advice, Air Force Reserve Col. Barb Carson, associate administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Veterans Business Development said, “Don’t be afraid to take a step before other people think you are ready to.”
Maj. Gen. Terry L. Scherling, former senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Force Protection worldwide, Homeland Defense and Military Support to Civil Authorities, said, “Be flexible and take it one day at a time. Do not follow an orderly fashion. Stick to what you do best, be focused, don’t be pulled to do for someone else.”
Army Col. Jill W. Chambers, who served four chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over an eight-year period added, “Some luck lies not in getting what you want but getting what you had, which you didn’t know you wanted.”
Rohan summed up the theme and vibe of the evening.
“What an honor to be here in front of you,” she said. “I was thinking about coming here and addressing all of you, I remembered our class slogan was a Robert Frost poem about two roads diverging in the woods, and I, I took the road less travelled by and it has made all the difference. People traveling that path with you, people who are there to help you and people there who will be watching you also and trying to learn from you because that’s what we do, that’s what the whole nation, God put us on earth for, I believe is to take care of one another. And to be there and to be helpful.
“We’re all here to take care of one another. I thank you for being here, you are all amazing. Amazing that you are brave enough to step forward and not just serve the nation but to step forward and start your own businesses, that is an amazing feat. So congratulations to each an every one of you for your decisions.”