Female veterans have been called the unseen or the invisible veterans.
They are often absent from the VFW and American Legion Color Guards that walk the football field before our local high school games. Many female veterans choose not to join these organizations because they feel unwelcome, even though they are eligible to join.
In interviews, women have reported chilly or even hostile reception when they have joined such organization since some view women not as “real veterans.” Female veterans have also reported negative experiences when using services reserved for veterans. For instance, women have reported being mistaken for the veteran’s spouse and not the veteran at VA clinics so they overlooked for care. These experiences make the women feel out of place within veterans’ organizations and so they decide not to use them. Instead, the women quietly disappear back in to the population.
I’m glad to report that I have not had such experiences, but I know feeling of being an invisible veteran.
It started when I was on active duty and people assumed the blue star flag my parents flew was for my brother, not for me. More recently while travelling with my brother I have had people assume he was the veteran. This is partly because the female face is not the one that people picture when they think about a veteran. They picture a clean-cut muscular man not a petite woman.
My brother fits the mold of what people imagine a veteran looks like. He is tall with broad shoulders and has a perfectly shaven jaw and hairline. And to boot, he uses a military style rucksack as his luggage. As I walked beside him in the airport I mentioned, “People are going to assume you’re a veteran.” As if on cue shortly after settling in at the gate, a woman looks at my brother and asks, “Did you serve?” My brother laughed and said, “No, she did,” gesturing towards me.
While this was an unsurprising, yet frustrating interaction, it does not compare to the frustrations many female veterans face daily, being overlooked for services or having to fight for the benefits they earned. Repeatedly having to justify yourself or explain why you are permitted to use a service becomes tiresome. For this reason, it is no wonder that many women choose not highlight their status as a veteran. But then, they remain invisible.
However, there are major efforts underway to find, bring together, and highlight the contributions of the over 67,000 female veterans in the state of Ohio. One such effort is the Ohio Women Veterans Advisory Committee that assists the Ohio Director of Veterans Affairs to reach and showcase the work of female veterans across the state.
There are programs created to help make female veterans more visible, such as the biennial Ohio Women Veterans Conference. This conference was first held in 2006 to bring female veterans together to discuss shared histories and experiences as well as to inform female veterans about services and programs open to them. Since its humble beginnings, this conference has become one of the largest gatherings of female veterans in the United States, filling the Ohio Union on the campus of the Ohio State University. Plans are already underway for the next conference, which will be held on August 10, 2019 in Columbus Ohio. If you know a female veteran, encourage her to attend.
If you are a female veteran, I hope to see you there. The Ohio Women Veterans Conference is an opportunity to once again feel the comradery that exists between fellow veterans. And even more than that, it is a chance to be visible.
Theresa Schroeder Hageman is an Air Force Veteran and a member of the Ohio Women Veterans Advisory Committee.