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‘We are not invisible’: Women veterans gather Sunday at Hillyard VFW post

June 12, 2022 Updated Sun., June 12, 2022 at 8:52 p.m.

U.S. Army Maj. Linda Merwin, left, slices a piece of cake as Rae Anna Victor of the Jonas Babcock Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution looks on Sunday at the Hillyard VFW. Merwin retired in 1990 after 20 years on active duty.  (Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. Army Maj. Linda Merwin, left, slices a piece of cake as Rae Anna Victor of the Jonas Babcock Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution looks on Sunday at the Hillyard VFW. Merwin retired in 1990 after 20 years on active duty. (Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Women veterans from all branches of the service and all eras came from far and wide to gather at the Hillyard Veterans of Foreign Wars post Sunday for the first in-person Women Veterans Day celebration.

Several dozen veterans, from 38 to 81, gathered for camaraderie, refreshments and support. Gov. Jay Inslee and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward sent proclamations recognizing their service and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers and Sen. Patty Murray sent letters thanking the women.

Organizer Tzena Scarborough, a member of the Women Veterans Advisory Committee, spoke about the difficulties she had after she retired from the Army in 1983.

“I was a little rough around the edges,” she said.

Scarborough said she believes women veterans must support each other.

“We can connect with each other and come alongside each other,” she said.

Retired Air Force Col. Brian Newberry, now executive director of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, brought flowers and boxes of cookies for the women. He said he grew up hearing stories about World War II and was particularly impressed by the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs).

The women pilots were in charge of ferrying new military planes from factories to military bases and other locations as well as performing test flights. They were considered civilians and so if they crashed and died, as some did, the military would not pay for their remains to be sent home, Newberry said. “But still, the WASPs went,” he said.

Newberry thanked the women for serving their country. “I truly think you are all emblematic of purity of spirit,” he said.

The women, probably because of their years of military service, were calm and cool when it was announced that they had to move indoors because a man with a long rifle had been spotted down the block. They efficiently moved inside and continued their program as police officers gathered in the streets. Organizers were told that the man was subdued with less-than-lethal ammunition a short time later.

Part of Sunday’s discussion centered around the Department of Veterans Affairs campaign, “We are not invisible,” that launched in 2017 to address the lack of representation of female veterans. Several said that people often assume that their husband is the veteran, not them. One woman joked that she should make a T-shirt that reads “I’m the veteran, not my husband.”

Scarborough acknowledged that many people don’t see women as veterans.

“We’ve got to educate people,” she said.

Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Penny Martinez of Pullman said she’s had many of the same experiences when at stores and restaurants with her husband. People usually assume that her husband is a veteran.

“The idea of women veterans is foreign to society, which is odd when you consider how many women served,” she said. “I think it’s still an evolving process, realizing how many women served, particularly in the last 20 years.”

Martinez joined the Army Reserves when she was 17 and served on active duty until she retired in 2010 at the age of 42. She started out in supply and was a paralegal for her last 17 years. She was stationed in several different locations over the years and was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom II.

She said she initially enlisted because it was a family tradition and she wanted money for college.

“My dad was a veteran,” she said. “My brother was also serving.”

Martinez made the Army her career because she felt a sense of community and patriotism there, she said.

“It just fit,” she said. “It felt right.”

Martinez said she appreciated the Women Veterans Day celebration, particularly because she’s heavily involved in the American Legion, where she is the district commander.

“I live and breathe all things veteran,” she said.

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