NORMAN — Women veterans gathered Saturday at Embassy Suites Norman for the 28th Annual Recognition Day of Oklahoma Women Veterans.
The program included a special memorial service dedicated to the women who had sacrificed their lives during the past year in service to their nation. Those women were: (Army) Spc. Sarina Butcher, 19, Checotah, Okla.; Spc. Mikayla Bragg, 21, Longview, Wash., Spc. Krystal Fitts, 26, Houston; Spc. Erica Alecksen, 21, Eatonton, Ga.; Spc. Brittany Gordon, 24, St. Petersburg, Fla.; Pfc. Patricia Horne, 20, Greenwood, Miss.; Chief Warrant Officer Thalia Ramirez, 28, San Antonio; Sgt. Donna Johnson, 29 Raeford, N.C.; Staff Sgt. Jessica Wing, 42, Alexandria, Va. and (Marine Corps) Sgt. Camella Steedley, 31, Sand Diego.
And while these young women who sacrificed their lives were remembered, also remembered were veterans who had passed away this year.
The day was highlighted by three key note speakers: Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris, director for the Center for Women Veterans, Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas, director of Manpower Management Division and Brig. Gen. (retired) Wilma Vaught, president of the Board of Directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc.
Trowell-Harris spoke on the need to educate women veterans on the benefits they are eligible to claim. She said women have been “boldly answering the nation’s call” for decades. She said 15 percent of service personnel on active duty are women and 18 percent of service members are women.
Trowell-Harris commended Oklahoma for electing a woman governor, Gov. Mary Fallin, and for appointing a woman, Maj. Gen. (retired) Rita Aragon as Secretary of Oklahoma Military and Veteran Affairs.
Despite the women who have served and continue to serve their nation, Trowell-Harris said there is a mistaken notion by many women that only those who serve in combat are eligible for benefits. She said many women who have served do not apply for veteran’s benefits.
Findings from the National Survey of Women Veterans by Donna L. Washington indicates there is a breakdown in communication with women veterans. Trowell-Harris said Washington’s study revealed that 31 percent of women veterans didn’t know they were eligible for benefits and 21 percent didn’t know how to apply for benefits.
“The rest had no clue they were a veteran,” she said.
She said education is key and that collaboration and coordination are needed to help women understand their eligibility for benefits. There is an effort underway to enhance the media’s recognition of women in service and to make women veterans more visible locally, regionally and nationally.
“Today we stand on the shoulders of extraordinary women,” said Trowell-Harris of those women in military service who paved the way.
Salinas spoke on representing the military. She enlisted in the Marines in 1974. She rose through the ranks commanding at each rank. She became the first female assigned as a plans and policy officer for a major combatant command in 1999 and in 2001 became the first woman to serve as a recruiting district commanding officer.
Vaught offered remarks to the Oklahoma women veterans and their guests.
She has served as chairperson of the NATO Women in the Allied Forces Committee and as senior woman military representative to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. She is one of the most decorated military women in U. S. history.
Locally, Joan Willauer served in the Marine Corps in World War II. Today, she serves fellow veterans of both sexes through volunteer work at the Norman Veterans Center. Willauer takes communion to the Catholics who live there.
Asked why she chose to serve in the Marine Corps, she laughed.
“People have asked me that for 65 years,” she said. “I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it for a very long time.”
Willauer had to wait until she turned 20 at which point her parents signed permission for her. Men could enter at 17 or 18 she said. She worked in radio supply providing crucial support services.
Patricia Sutherland lives in the Norman Veterans Center. She served in the navy during World War II.
“I just walked down the street one day,” she said.
There were the posters with Uncle Sam saying “We want you” so she signed up. She wasn’t alone, her five brothers are all veterans also.
“My oldest daughter is a retired Navy nurse after 30 years,” she said. “We’re really proud of her.”
Sutherland said she was only in 14 months. She met her husband who is also a veteran during her service. When they got married she had to leave the service.