Women’s History Month Exhibits Bring More Recognition to Female Combat Vets
By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Female veterans aren’t always recognized like their male counterparts are, in civilian society or when they’re looking for the help they’ve earned.
”We hear about women going into [Veterans Affairs hospitals], and male veteran patients assume they’re just wives or daughters or sisters of veterans instead of being the veterans themselves,” said Kayla Williams, the director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Women Veterans. “Occasionally, even VA employees will ask if they’re there with their husbands.”
The center is working to remedy that, and Williams – who knows the struggle – is leading the charge.
An Army vet herself, Williams served from 2000-2005 as an Arabic linguist and spent a year in Iraq during the initial invasion. She eventually left the Army to take care of her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Brian McGough, who was seriously injured during deployment. During that journey of recovery, she realized how differently female war vets were treated.
More Recognition Needed
“We would go out to get beers to celebrate coming home alive, and the bartender would say, ‘Hey, somebody buy these guys a round,’ and the patrons would take him very literally,” Williams said. “The assumption was that only the guys were combat vets.”
It was that sense of invisibility that made the transition back more difficult for her and other female soldiers, so she used her GI Bill for graduate school and became an advocate on behalf of military women and wounded warriors. Instead of focusing on the challenges that female vets face, Williams said she wanted to highlight their successes – like the fact that female vets are more likely to use their GI Bill and more apt to graduate than male vets.
“Women who come back to their communities after service are strong, resilient and come back with leadership and technical skills with lots to give,” Williams said.
Highlighting Thriving Female Vets
To get more VA providers and male vets to recognize that, the Center for Women Veterans is honoring the creativity and resilience of female vets and active-duty women this Women’s History Month. The VA worked with the nonprofit Veterans Artist Program to find female veterans and active-duty service members who had also become artists. More than 120 women submitted nearly 400 works of art for the 2017 Woman Veterans Art Exhibit. The artists were narrowed down to the top 10, and their profiles and artwork have been displayed at VA Medical Centers around the country.
The exhibits show that women can thrive after combat or any traumatic experience.
“All of these women are so brave and strong and just wonderful examples of the resilience of women veterans and all our veterans,” Williams said.
Here’s a little more about those ladies. You can find out more about their artwork, where that work is featured and who the runners-up were on the Woman Veterans Art Exhibit website.
Victoria Bryers joined the U.S. Coast Guard the first year women were accepted for active duty. Three years later, in 1977, she was one of the first women to be stationed on a combat ship. She went on to serve in the Coast Guard Reserve for 30 years. In her retirement, Bryers is completing her master’s degree in art education and is working on a project to honor women who died on active duty.
Pamela Corwin served six years in the Army, most of it specializing in the Resilience, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention program. She was also a fitness and health noncommissioned officer. Nowadays, she’s a wildlife and fisheries biologist and is working to restore historical American shad spawning runs that have been affected by dams and changes to rivers in South Carolina.
“She’s a tremendous example for other young women who are thinking about going into a non-traditional career field,” Williams said.
Amy Forsythe is a Marine Corps veteran who served four combat tours as an enlisted military journalist. She covered operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and her work was often aired on major news networks. Forsythe continues to serve as a Navy Reserve public affairs officer as the bureau chief of Defense Media Activity in Guam.
Natalie Lopez is currently a staff sergeant in the Air Force. She served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was once a military training instructor and is a top 10 percent designated marksman. During her spare time, Lopez is also getting her degree in art therapy and is volunteering at art centers to help veterans suffering from PTSD.
Cara Myhre served as a cryptologic Arabic linguist in the Army and Army Reserves for 12 years, which included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. She started doing art to cope with a traumatic experience. Since then, she used her GI Bill to get a degree in fine arts and psychology in order to help others, including fellow veterans, do the same.
Debra Russell spent more than 14 years in the Navy before being medically discharged. She dealt with some trauma during her military career, so now she’s working on degrees in both graphic design and mental health counseling.
Deveon Sudduth spent 37 years in the Army. Her first 12 were enlisted before she went to Officer Candidate School in the 1990s. She served two tours of duty in Iraq before retiring in 2016 as a lieutenant colonel. She loved her military life and has said she wants to help veterans as much as she can.
“When I look at that [photo], I feel like I must have seen that exact image when I was in Iraq. It really resonated with me,” Williams said.
Laura Taylor was a fighter jet mechanic and plane captain during her Navy career. Upon leaving the service, she got a degree in visual communications and has since become a graphic designer with a passion for creating and teaching art. Her love for military life is reflected in her work.
Stacey Thompson served in the Marine Corps for two years. She’s a disabled vet who also takes full-time care of her husband, a retired gunnery sergeant. Her art helps share her story of survival from military sexual trauma, and she spends her time as an advocate and motivational speaker.
Lindsay Zike was a military brat who served in the Navy for seven years. When she got out in 2008, she randomly took a ceramics class, which led to a passion for clay and metal-working. Since then, she’s earned two degrees in fine arts. Her travels while in the Navy inspired much of her professional work.
Congrats to all of these women, and thank you for your service!
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