Local veterans got the chance to add their voices to a project that seeks to identify issues specifically facing female veterans, and work toward solutions to them here in Alaska.
Two women attended a facilitated conversation Thursday at Peninsula Community Health Services in Soldotna put on by the Alaska Veterans’ Organization for Women, a program offered through YWCA Alaska in Anchorage. YWCA Alaska is traveling around the state on a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum to gather input from women to contribute to the Women Veterans Visibility Project, said Jessica Limbird, program associate for YWCA Alaska.
“When we talk to women veterans, they consistently tell us that they don’t feel seen or respected, and so that’s the need that we’re trying to address with this,” Limbird said.
Though only two veterans showed up to the conversation Thursday, the topics they covered ranged far and wide from reluctance to identify as a female veteran to the wish for more opportunities for women veterans on the Kenai Peninsula. Brenna Bliss, who served in the U.S. Army for four years as a paratrooper, and Sandy Weeks, who served in the Navy for nine years as an aviation storekeeper second class, discussed issues they and their fellow female veterans face locally and in general along with Limbird and Kim Haviland, a readjustment counselor at the Kenai Vet Center.
Some issues female veterans face are universal to all women, the group said, from being paid less then men for doing the same job to having to deal with a pervasive rape culture that puts women at risk for harassment or assault. Others are specific to the fact that they are women in the military, like the doubt that gets cast on them when they return home about whether their service was as meaningful as a male veteran’s.
Weeks and Bliss talked about examples of having to wait longer than male veterans to get veteran-specific services, having to defend the right to be in the military while there, and of not being equally recognized during events like Veterans Day.
“Women are important, and their service was just as important to this country as our male counterparts’,” Weeks said. “And they need to stand up and be counted. They should feel just as proud as our male veteran brothers.”
One issue highlighted throughout the discussion was the need to find and reach out to the “hidden” female veterans on the peninsula. The attendees acknowledged that many veterans move to the peninsula from more populated areas like Anchorage in order live in a more secluded way, but that it makes forming a visible, supportive community of women in the area more difficult.
The group talked about how women can be made to feel like their service didn’t matter, which not only discourages them from self-identifying as veterans but also from reaching out to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for services they qualify for or to local support groups.
There are male-only and female-only groups for veterans that meet through the Kenai Vet Center, Haviland said. Female veterans and female spouses of veterans find the group helpful as a safe space and a means of support, she said, though it can be hard to find and encourage female veterans to join.
“I think when people feel disempowered, they hide,” Limbird said. “And so, even if … other women veterans see the work that we’re doing and, like some of the other women veterans were saying this morning, they feel called to then start identifying as a woman veteran, that will be a success for us. Even if we never meet them, even if they never attend a meeting or engage in the community that’s there for them.”
The women suggested veteran listening sessions specifically for women, since some female veteran-specific issues are easier to talk about without men in the room. They also liked the idea of having a satellite group from the Alaska Veterans’ Organization for Women form on the peninsula to provide more activities and support.
“I feel most veterans meetings are focused toward the male veteran, and it’s nice to have a group that’s interested in servicing female veterans,” Weeks said. “Because we do have different issues, different concerns.”
The next steps for those leading the Women Veterans Visibility Project will be to compile the input gathered from around the state to identify common threads, Limbird said. That includes problems and challenges female veterans face, but also successes and points of pride for them.
Based on what female veterans give as feedback, the project will work with several partner organizations to identify solutions to the problems they face, whether that be better connecting them to services and to each other, giving them a platform to tell their stories, or finding ways to make them more visible in their own communities, Limbird said.
“Connecting women with opportunities to tell their story is part of it, but then … ultimately, shifting culture is really kind of the end game for us,” she said. “We want to be able to empower women veterans to stand up and be counted.”