BELLEVILLE — Women always have played a big role in the mission of the U.S. military.
But American society still has a lot of catching up do when it comes to accepting the challenges women veterans face -- from finding civilian jobs while juggling roles as wives and moms, to dealing with the toxic aftermath of sexual assault at the hands of fellow service members.
Such were the messages of Saturday's Illinois Women Veterans Fair at Southwestern Illinois College, which co-sponsored the event with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
Air Force veteran Evelyn Carson, of Fairview Heights, echoed a common complaint: The public image of "veteran" continues to be that of a male.
When newscasts show video about the war in Iraq, the top field commanders are all men, with the background also filled with male military members, Carson said.
"Where are the females?" asked Carson, who served as an Air Force surgical technician before leaving in 1999. "There are no females in those positions."
For Susan Anderson, of Murphysboro, the U.S. military has made big strides since she joined the U.S. Navy in the early 1980s as a single mother of three young children.
Female military personnel today "get to wear pants," said Anderson, a nurse anesthetist who retired in 2010 with the rank of commander.
"When I went into the Navy in 1983 we had to wear dresses," she said. "I was glad to be able to climb into an airplane on a rope ladder and be able to have a pair of pants on, instead of a stinkin' dress on ... It's great now compared to what it used to be."
What complicates the transition to civilian life is the fact that women often are shy about telling their stories as military veterans, said Keely Dickenson, women's veterans coordinator for the military affairs department.
When Dickenson, an army veteran of Iraq, returned to the United States, she wanted to put her experiences behind her, she said.
"Honestly, as proud as I was of what I did, and how I served, I wanted to be left alone," Dickenson said. "I wanted to go back, I wanted to take care of my babies and be left alone. And kind of disconnect from the military."
Later she realized that "I should be proud of this service," she said, a conclusion that led her to buy an Iraq veteran license plate for her car.
"But what I found is that when I drove around town, nobody even thought of it," Dickenson said. "But when my husband drove my car, people would salute him. They would salute my husband in the car because of my plate ... I would just chuckle."
And then one day, her 4-year-old daughter told her something important: "'Mommy, I am so proud of you that you were a soldier. I want to be a soldier, too.'" Dickenson said. "When people go look at me, they might see a cheerleader, maybe this. No, I'm a soldier. I was a soldier and I served."
The event's keynote speaker, Air Force Maj. Gen. Barbara Faulkenberry, said veterans' assets include an immersion in a culture based on integrity, education and development, teamwork and workforce diversity.
"You should stand tall. You should really understand what it is you bring," said Faulkenberry, the vice-commander of the 18th Air Force, based at Scott Air Force Base. "Employers, you want some of this talent on this team."
The morning's other speakers were Georgia Costello, SWIC's president, and Erica Borggren, the director of the state military affairs department, as well as a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq.
The morning's speakers celebrated the camaraderie, self-sacrifice and other virtues of military life. But the program's final panel of speakers also spoke out on the dark sides of military service, including post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma.
Both conditions continue to trouble army veteran Rebecca Miller, the victim of a gang rape while she was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, in the early 1980s.
What made the attack even worse was that her commanding officer blamed her for it and refused to seek justice for her, Miller said.
"His words stayed with me for many, many years," she said. "'That's what you get for being in a man's army. You ought to be ashamed.' I lived with that shame for many, many years."
Public awareness of military sexual trauma has started only recently. The most recent surveys show that 22 percent of female military members report experiencing at least one sexual assault, along with 1.2 percent of male members, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
After leaving the military, Miller said she spent years going through "self-destructive behavior," before the birth of her son.
After years of treatment and connecting with other trauma survivors, Miller said she has made a lot of progress.
"We never get healed. We accept that. We get better," she said. "But what we want you to know is that it's not too late to get help."
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.