SALEM – For the first time in Oregon history, Governor Kate Brown has declared a state observance recognizing women veterans.
Oregon joins three other states — California, New York, and Texas — in officially designating June 12 as Women Veterans Day.
The day marks the 71st anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which acknowledged the great contributions made by women in the military, and finally enabled them to serve as regular members of the United States Armed Forces and Reserves.
And now, it stands as a long-awaited recognition of Oregon’s female service members.
“As a proud veteran of the U.S. Army, this historic proclamation is something that is obviously very personal for me. I am proud that here at the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs (ODVA), women veterans are represented at every level of our agency, including the very top,” says Kelly Fitzpatrick, the agency’s director.
“We are proud of all women veterans in the state of Oregon. They are a vital part of the Oregon veteran community, and we will continue to work to anticipate their needs and help them thrive in our state. We are all thankful for their service to our country.”
Fitzpatrick is the first woman to lead ODVA since its founding in 1945.
“In my current position, it is important for me to identify as a woman veteran to inspire other women service members. There is an educational component, and there is also a certain call to action,” she says. “I hope that other women veterans who haven’t tapped into their Veterans’ Affairs eligibility will do so when they see a woman director at the helm.”
Fitzpatrick said that being the first woman in the position isn’t personally important to her, but she hopes she can serve as a role model for women rising through the military’s ranks.
“Things have definitely changed,” she says, “and that is because of military leadership.”
“There were times throughout my career when male colleagues would challenge me and say I was less capable because I was a woman. I had one colleague who told me that if we got into a combat situation my male subordinates wouldn’t follow me,” said Fitzpatrick. “Things have absolutely changed since then.”
Today, women comprise more than 16 percent of the country’s military forces, with more than 25,000 women veterans currently living in Oregon. They are also the fastest growing segment of the veteran population.
“At the end of the day, when you are serving you are soldiers,” said Lacey Carter, ODVA’s aging veterans outreach coordinator.
Liz Estabrooks, the ODVA’s Women Veterans Coordinator, curated an exhibition featuring 20 portraits of Oregon women military veterans. The I Am Not Invisible collection aims to increase awareness and recognition of the contributions women have made in service to their country in uniform.
“I am a female veteran, and I was really excited to see the reaction to that exhibit when it was at the Oregon Veterans Home in the Dalles. It was really meaningful for the veterans there to see that and see some recognition for female veterans. Especially for previous service eras, its been very impactful for them and their families to see that recognition,” said Carter.
The photographs also highlight the myriad contributions, needs, and experiences of women who have served in the military.
“It wasn’t until I got to basic training and the drill sergeant told me that I wasn’t welcome ‘in this man’s army,’ that it occurred to me that I, as a woman, was in the minority,” said Estabrooks.
“For women, it’s a real personal feeling of feeling invisible. I will talk to women who have served for more than 13 years, who will say they are not a veteran. That’s important for people to think about,” says Estabrooks. “I was always hearing veterans referred to in male terms, and seeing the images of men. So, you know, I didn’t really see myself as a veteran, I was just a girl who was in the army. Which is why I believe it is so important to celebrate our female veterans in theI Am Not Invisible exhibition.”
The collection has gained national recognition and grown into a nation-wide movement. It will be at the State Capitol for two days on Friday, June 14, and Monday, June 17.