Women in the military hasn’t always been an easy topic of discussion. Some people believe that women should be allowed to fight and contribute to our Nation’s military, while others believe that women have no business fighting along side men.
That being said, females are now able to serve in combat and hold most jobs in the military. In 2017, there were 214,098 women serving in the various branches of the military, compared to the 1,429,036 men. In the reserves there are 118,781 serving. There were close to 2 million female veterans in the United States, according to www.statisticbrain.com.
The American Legion Post 148 in Windham, has seen an increased enrollment in female members as has the VFW Post 10643. Army Veteran, Keri Karsten joined and became an officer in the American Legion Post.
Women veterans struggle with the same issues that men veterans do. They try to get benefits, find out information and live their lives after military service.
Windham Veteran, Susan Downing Walker enlisted to get away from a poor family situation.
She learned from her step-father, an ex-Navy man that “When you saw something that needed to be done you do it,” she said. “I took that into the military when I put up my hand to honor and serve.”
She took pride in the work she did in the military as an operating room technician at Walter Reed Hospital. As a 19-year-old, she saw things that continue to haunt her. One man told her, “If they’ve got to take my leg, if they can’t help me, don’t let me wake up.”
“Back then if you were disabled, you had to rely on other people,” Walker said.
Her experience in the seventies was also filled with traumatic experiences that changed her life. She was raped twice, one of those resulted in a pregnancy. She was discharged from the military within 24 hours of reporting what had happened.
She went back in to the military, this time in the Air Force at age 26. She was able to fly planes.
Walker tells the story of singing the Lord’s Prayer after lights out every evening and how her superior officers would encourage her and praise her.
In October of 1989, she returned to Maine with a son that she had with her former husband. To this day, Walker is still fighting to explain what happened and to find the child she gave up for adoption. Looking for answers has been frustrating. “When one door opens, it opens up 74 other doors,” she said.
Walker is still looking for answers. She does counted-cross stitch and knits scarves for breast cancer patients, while waiting and searching for answers. “My service has been the best of times and the worst of times,” she said.
Not all stories are as challenging as Walkers, but studies by the BBC and Huffingtonpost.com, “a woman in the military is three times more likely than a woman in the general population to be raped.” “Sixty-four percent of military women have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment.”
Other women in the military have gone on to help Veterans at the local level; others like Windham Town Councilor, Rebecca Cummings serve their communities. Chief Master Sergeant, Lynn Vajda serves in the Air National Guard and also served four years of active duty in the Air Force. With a total of 32 years of experience, she has been deployed twice and now supervises 20 soldiers.
“The military is like a second family. We are close knit and we watch out for each other,” Vajda said. She is the first female Chief Master Sergeant in South Portland at the Air National Guard Station. “I really love it.”
“My goal was to make Chief. There were a lot of hoops and hurdles to get over but I made it two years ago,” she said. Vajda credits her support at home with her husband and son for pushing and reminding her of her goals. She was able to achieve her goals because she had a military spouse, she said.
They served together during Desert Storm. A military wife with a non-military husband might have issues when the wife is deployed over seas with other guys, Vajda said. “It’s still predominately males. We have 115 males to about 20 females.”
Vajda encourages women to check out the military for the benefits including education and healthcare beyond the time spent in service. “Take advantage of what is offered. Seek assistance from others,” she said.
The military also offers job skills. Vajda’s unit specializes in computers and Internet security. They have security beyond IT credentials, according to Vajda.
“I have loved every minute of it. The good outweighs the bad,” she said. She has been able to travel the world while getting paid.
Vajda and her husband are members of the VFW Post and the American Legion Post in Windham. They feel very much supported by the members.
As with any organization, all people have their own experiences. Veterans are honored and thanked for their service regularly in Windham and surrounding towns. Women might not have a long history in the military, only since 1917 when the first woman enlisted - however, they will be around for a long time, making contributions to our Nation and its security.
The VFW Post and American Legion Post welcome all veterans and women veterans are no exceptions. The purpose of these organizations is to support all veterans and assist them in finding resources that may be helpful with returning to and living a civilian life.
Research: Some reports show that a woman in the military is three times more likely than a woman in the general population to be raped, and in Iraq are more likely to be attacked by one of their own than an insurgent. In 1988, the first sexual harassment survey was created military-wide which found that 64% of military women have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment. Those found to be affected the greatest were Native-American women, followed by Hispanic and African-American women. There is currently a lawsuit in the US military in which the plaintiffs claim to have been subjected to sexual assaults in the military.