‘Women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom’
Patricia McAtee, Indiana Dept. of Veterans Affairs public contact outreach specialist, speaks at the Indiana Women Veterans' Conference in Indianapolis on Friday, April 15, 2016. Photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion.

‘Women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom’

A special event last Friday celebrated Indiana women veterans for their service, sacrifice and for guaranteeing America’s freedom.

More than 200 women veterans attended the Indiana Women Veterans’ Conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to hear inspiring words from prominent military women; to attend workshops on VA benefits, health care, art therapy and resume writing; and to get pampered with massages and beauty makeovers. The event, sponsored by the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, was also an opportunity for the only all-women’s American Legion post in the state to let women veterans know “that we are here for them,” said Indianapolis Post 438 Commander Christylee Vickers.

“When I got elected (as commander in July 2015) I wanted us to become more active in the community because that’s what the Legion’s Four Pillars are about,” she said. “Women are so often forgotten about in the service so I’m passionate about making sure our service isn’t forgotten; making sure our service is acknowledged; and making sure that people know we are here in the community.”

Post 438 had a booth at the event to hand out brochures on how the Legion helps veterans, families and community members, to show copies of The American Legion Magazine – a membership benefit – and to recruit new members. The members made posters for table display that read “Post 431 supports women veterans of all eras” and raffled off a free year of Legion membership.

“Our military service has built who we are; it’s shaped who we are,” Vickers said. “I’m proud to be a Legionnaire. I’m proud of my service, and my family’s service.”

The Women Veterans’ Conference began with an expo featuring veterans support organizations, followed by a luncheon, an empowering speech by U.S. Air Force Col. Anna Schulte and the workshops. Schulte spoke on the history of women veterans, changes that have happened because of the growing number of women in service and the forthcoming rise of women veterans.

“In the last five decades the number of military occupations open to women has expanded tremendously. Depending on the service, women can now perform close to 100 percent of service occupations,” said Schulte, the commander of the 434th Maintenance Group at Grissom Air Reserve Base in Kokomo, Ind. “And in 2009, women comprised 8 percent of the total veteran population in the United States. By 2025, they are projected to make up 15 percent of living veterans. It is important that we all work to understand who our women veterans are, how their military service affects their post-military life, and how they can be better served.”

Army veteran and Legionnaire Jamie Billingsley came to the conference for the camaraderie and to gain résumé writing tips. “It’s awesome to be at an event where it’s just for us and to learn about resources specific to women veterans,” said Billingsley, a member of Post 239 in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and a disabled veteran outreach program specialist. “I help veterans find jobs so I’m always looking for résumé writing tips; anything to help me benefit the veteran I’m working with.”

For veterans service officer and Navy veteran Desley Snyder, she looked forward to what the VA benefits workshop had to offer. “Anything that I can come to that broadens my knowledge and the information that I have to give to veterans is always helpful,” said Desley, a member of Post 322 in Elizabethtown, Ind.

VA benefits workshop presenter Patricia McAtee shared that the one benefit women veterans never ask about is burial rights.

“Veterans who were honorably discharged can be buried in a memorial cemetery. Women veterans are entitled to that same benefit (as male servicemembers),” said McAtee, public contact outreach specialist for the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs. “Women veterans are entitled to whatever the VA has to offer. There is no such thing as male benefits or female benefits.”

During the VA health care workshop, women heard from a panel of women doctors from the Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis about the facility's comprehensive care services available to women. “We want to do a better job at actually listening to what your needs are. What is it that we can do to help you achieve your goals,” Kathryn Shanahan, R.D., expressed to the women. “We want to ensure that whatever we are doing is veteran-centric.”

Army veteran Annette Nearon enjoyed hearing from the doctors because “you get females who do the job every day,” she said. “They are in those veteran roles so they give more personalized information I think as opposed to what the book says. That helps a lot.”

The conference closed with an art therapy workshop where women learned how art can help veterans explore their thoughts, feelings and behavior related to their military experiences. Presenter and board certified art therapist Kristi Gmutza, who has worked with veterans through art therapy, shared that it can help with community reintegration, post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma.

“I describe art therapy as providing a little bit of a bubble wrap or a cushion for veterans who are dealing with trauma or who are victims of sexual abuse in the military that you’re able to address those issues and come at them in a little bit more of a gentler way,” Gmutza said.

Gmutza previously conducted an eight-week art therapy group with local women veterans where they shattered bowls with a hammer, decorated or wrote on the pieces about how each piece represented their story, and then glued the bowl back together to make it whole again. “That idea that trauma or the military experience sometimes might break you but there is a way to piece it back together and make it whole,” Gmutza said.

Many of the women displayed their artwork in local art fairs as a way to share their story. Gmutza is conducting another art therapy workshop for women veterans starting May 8 in Indianapolis. Click here for more details.

For the women who attended the conference, they left feeling pampered and with an increased knowledge of benefits and health-care resources available specifically for them, and they left with pride for serving their country after hearing Schulte’s departing words.

“As women participate in the defense of our country, it is important to remember those who came before us and let the future generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom.”