Salute the troops: Veterans share their experience as women in the military

FARGO - When Staff Sgt. Amy Wieser Willson asks whether a restaurant has a veteran's discount, the waitress often turns to her husband and says, "Oh, are you a veteran?"...

Lt. Col. Teresa Luthi McDonough
Lt. Col. Teresa Luthi McDonough of the 119th Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard. (Carrie Snyder / The Forum)

FARGO - When Staff Sgt. Amy Wieser Willson asks whether a restaurant has a veteran's discount, the waitress often turns to her husband and says, "Oh, are you a veteran?"

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Jack Willson Jr. may also be a veteran, but Amy's the one who asked the question.

Amy, a public information officer with the North Dakota National Guard, says moments like that remind her that female veterans are still sometimes forgotten.

"We hear those stories all the time," says Brenda Bergsrud, women veterans coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs.

Retired Master Sgt. Joy Mikyska, department service operator for the North Dakota Veterans of Foreign Wars, says although the other members accept her, she's often the only woman at VFW meetings.


"Most people don't realize women are veterans," the 48-year-old Fargo woman says.

In fact, as of September 2009, more than 1.8 million living female veterans had served in the U.S. military, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, women comprised 8 percent of the total U.S. veteran population that year, and by 2035, they're projected to make up 15 percent.

During her years of service, however, Amy says gender equality hasn't been an issue.

"For most of the past six years, the unit I've been in, I've been the only woman in that unit. There was nothing strange or unusual about that. I wasn't treated any differently because of it," the 35-year-old West Fargo woman says.

Lt. Col. Teresa Luthi McDonough, of the 119th Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard, says she hasn't come across any gender-related roadblocks, either.

"I do, of course, know that people before me paved the way for that, and maybe educated my bosses or my senior members so that they didn't treat me differently," the 41-year-old Moorhead woman says.

When Amy was a child, she'd ask the recruiter at her hometown unit in Valley City, N.D., "Why can't girls join?" because it was men-only at the time.


"I didn't understand. It was my hometown unit. That's where I wanted to be," she says.

The unit opened to women in January 1995, and Amy joined in March.

"As I came of age, they accepted women, and I think those roles have continued to grow over the past 20 years," she says.

Making the transition

Amy, Joy and Teresa have about 60 years of combined experience, and all three are Iraq War veterans.

Brenda, who does outreach across the state, says women have a tougher time readjusting after a deployment because they often take on the role of the backbone of the family.

Teresa's husband "held down the fort" when she deployed in spring 2006 to the Green Zone, the governmental center of central Baghdad.

"He had quite a support system, too, to take care of his son, or my stepson, while I was gone," she says.


Though her transition back home wasn't without frustration, Teresa says she and her husband, a Moorhead firefighter, were prepared. They were told in classes beforehand, "Don't expect to go back to normal, because it's going to be a new normal."

"Whenever we weren't seeing eye to eye, we remembered, 'This is how it's supposed to be,' and that got us through it a lot quicker. We didn't fight that feeling of, 'Why did you move the spices while I was gone? I can't reach them,' " she says with a laugh.

When Amy returned from her 15-month deployment to Tikrit, about 112 miles from Baghdad, she had the added challenge of returning to grad school at North Dakota State University.

Four soldiers in her unit were killed and more than two dozen were wounded, including her now husband, Jack. They were shelled daily.

"Every summer we celebrate his 'alive day.' He came through it just fine, and we're very, very thankful for that," she says.

After experiencing that kind of trauma, Amy found it difficult to sit in class listening to a fellow student complain about how stressful his class schedule was.

"I knew he had the good fortune of being able to go from high school to his bachelor's and right into his master's degree," she says.

Amy says she stayed mostly quiet during her first year back in school.

"Given the types of things I was overhearing, it just wasn't worth the effort to explain that I was a veteran. I don't think they would understand, given their perspective and their limited exposure to the outside world," she says.

More coming forward

Amy, Joy and Teresa say the stigma surrounding one of the military's biggest problems - MST, or military sexual trauma - has faded.

The VA uses the term to refer to sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment, which can include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing; threatening, offensive remarks about your body or your sexual activities; or threatening and unwelcome sexual advances.

According to screening at Veterans Health Administration facilities, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men seen there respond "yes" when asked if they've experienced MST.

"I do notice more cases, but I believe it's because they are more comfy coming forward. It's weird to say, but it's a good thing that the numbers are increasing," says Teresa, the sexual assault response coordinator for her wing.

Amy says the military has more services and outreach programs for victims to turn to for help.

"We're reaching out constantly and letting people know that there's people to talk to, and we didn't have that 20 years ago," she says.

Brenda says the same is true for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD can occur after experiencing a traumatic event, such as combat exposure. Symptoms fall into four categories: reliving the traumatic event, avoiding situations that remind you of the event, feeling numb and feeling keyed up.

According to the VA, about 7 to 8 percent of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives, and women are more likely than men to develop PTSD.

"With both PTSD and MST, I think that the stigma is going away, so more people are coming forward with it than they had been in the past," she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590

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