The news that a female veteran was harassed last week for pulling into a veterans-only parking space – the assumption apparently being that as a woman, she hadn’t served in the military – has struck a chord with a number of female vets.
They say that they identify with the experience of Mary Claire Caine of Wilmington, N.C., who served in Kuwait with the Air Force. Ms. Caine received a nasty note on her windshield from someone who identified as a vet.
“I think they took one look at me when I got out of my car and saw that I was a woman and assumed I wasn’t a veteran,” Caine told WECT, her local television station, this week.
It’s a common story, say female service members. Retired Col. Ellen Haring, an Army veteran, recalls walking into a bar with some fellow female veterans who had been wounded in service.
While the bartender offered free drinks to Ms. Haring’s husband, who was with the group, “He never even considered that the women [at the bar] might not just be vets, but combat vets,” she says.
In fact, two of the women had been awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses, and three of them had Purple Hearts. “But my husband got free drinks,” she says. “He looked like a soldier.”
“That’s every woman veteran’s life,” says Tegan Griffith, who as a US Marine deployed to Iraq with an attack helicopter squadron.
For a number of years running, she has had the same experience on Veterans Day when she visits Applebee’s restaurant, for example, with civilian male co-workers.
“You walk around, and these managers are shaking hands with the men and saying, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” she says. “Every year I get skipped over.”
This happened despite the fact that she wore a sweat shirt from her deployment one year and a leather biker vest with some unit patches the next year.
For two years, she was ignored by the same manager, and so she confronted him. “He gave me the same lame excuse that a lot of people do: ‘Well, I guess we’re just used to the men.’ ”
For this reason, Ms. Griffith makes it a point to introduce herself to her fellow Marine veterans. “A lot of the male Marines have never served with a woman,” she says. “I give them a hearty handshake.”
And at veterans events, she always greets the women first. “Even if she says, ‘I didn’t serve, I’m just here with my husband,’ I do it to try to break down the stigma.”
The lack of awareness about the contributions to combat made by servicewomen in the post-9/11 era “can really be a hard thing for a lot of female vets,” says Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group. “And when you get that sort of obliviousness from your fellow vets, it really hits home.”
Caine told WECT that after she found the note on her windshield at the supermarket, “For a split second I thought, ‘Am I a worthy enough veteran to park in this spot?’ And then I got very angry at myself for even considering that.”
But it’s a feeling that many women grapple with. Men often inflate their combat experience: There are the “stolen valor” stories of veterans wearing medals they didn’t earn “to put themselves in this ‘über-vet’ category,” says Mr. Jacob, who served as a Marine.
The majority of women vets, on the other hand, “Often don’t even identify themselves as veterans,” he adds. “They think, ‘I served in the military, but didn’t deploy’ or ‘I went to Iraq, but never went outside the wire.’ ”
Now, many veterans of foreign wars groups, however, are endeavoring to fight these biases and are “reaching out to women in a way they never have before,” Jacob says. “They realize their membership base of old white men is starting to die off.”
It helps, he adds, that the American Legion just elected its first woman as executive director in November, and the Vietnam Veterans of America has a woman as vice president.
“We as a nation are beginning to recognize female veterans,” Jacob adds. “But we still have a long, long way to go.”