Nebraska’s female veterans get their due, and their day, in D.C.
WASHINGTON — They’ve encountered the skeptical looks when trying to claim a veterans discount. Or worn a U.S. Navy sweatshirt and been asked if they have a son in uniform.
“They always think I’m the mother or the wife. I tell them, ‘No, I was the one in the Navy,’ ” said DeAnna Schulze of Grant, Nebraska, who served as a combat medic in the Persian Gulf War.
Female veterans don’t always get the recognition they’re due, but Schulze and 134 other Nebraska women who are veterans arrived Monday in the nation’s capital to a hero’s welcome and a packed day touring the memorials to their service.
Through their nonprofit Patriotic Productions, Omaha couple Bill and Evonne Williams have brought thousands of Nebraska veterans to the nation’s capital since 2008.
But this one was just for the women.
“I feel like as a woman we don’t get recognized as much,” said Kori Osienger of Lincoln, an Army medic who did two tours in Afghanistan.
Her last deployment ended with a roadside bomb outside Kandahar that threw her from the vehicle and broke her back in three places.
Her injuries slowed her as she climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, service dog Battle at her side. Listening to taps at the Tomb of the Unknowns brought tears to her eyes as she thought of those killed in Afghanistan.
She was overwhelmed by the support shown to those on the trip and the camaraderie the veterans felt with each other.
“This is honestly incredible,” Osienger said.
The group was joined by Loretta Swit, the actress who played nurse Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the 1970s series “M*A*S*H.” Buses ferried them from one memorial to another.
At Arlington National Cemetery, they visited Section 60, where many U.S. service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. They had lunch and posed for group photos at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
The women called one another sister and talked about common experiences, whether they served in Vietnam or Iraq.
Monday’s trip came as the Marines celebrate 100 years of women serving, Omahan Alison Anderson noted, and she said it felt good to represent her generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Anderson deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan as an officer in the Marines and led female engagement teams. That meant going on infantry patrols, visiting with local women and gathering critical intelligence.
“I feel kind of proud that I was part of a generation that started that, started to build the confidence in other people that we could do just as good as guys can do,” Anderson said. “If not better.”
The group toured the Pentagon memorial dedicated to those killed in that building on the Sept. 11, 2001 — an attack that helped inspire a number of those on the flight to join the fight.
Nebraska Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Brenda Erickson of Lincoln was 33 years old when she joined in 2004.
“After 9/11 I just kind of got to thinking about it,” Erickson said. “My brother was deploying and I was like, ‘You know what, I need to do something.’ ”
Erickson, who now works for the Guard full time, flew on medical evacuation missions all over Iraq at a time when roadside bombs were common. Her crew picked up wounded American soldiers, NATO soldiers, even enemy combatants.
In her workspace, she still has the picture of one Nebraska soldier she picked up who didn’t make it.
They also picked up civilians — everyone from a 17-day-old baby to a 95-year-old man.
“That was just part of our job,” she said. “If somebody was hurt, we went and got them and brought them back to a hospital.”
Several Army nurses who served in Vietnam gathered in front of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, posing for pictures and recalling the soldiers they cared for years ago. If the names of the soldiers had slipped away, their faces were still clear.
They talked about the men who were anxious about heading back to the front lines, especially if they were approaching the end of their tour and thinking of home. And how the men were glad to have friendly faces looking after them.
“I worked a lot of nights, and somebody couldn’t sleep and you just sat with them and listened to them,” said Phyllis Scholz of Stuart, Nebraska.
Kelsey Stubbendick of Avoca, Nebraska, remembered celebrating her 19th birthday while on deployment to Iraq as a Nebraska Army National Guard soldier.
Stubbendick drove trucks filled with food, ammunition and other supplies to troops stationed all over Iraq. Their convoys were attacked frequently with roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.
Deployed shortly after she graduated from high school, Stubbendick said her unit arrived in the region before more heavily armored vehicles designed to best withstand such attacks were available.
“In the beginning, they just took a plate of steel and slapped it on the side of our trucks, and that’s what we had to protect us,” Stubbendick said.
One of those bombs blew out all the windows of her vehicle — and her left eardrum. She would receive a Purple Heart for the wound, but it didn’t take her out of the fight for long.
“They fixed our truck that night, and we were back on the road the next day,” Stubbendick said.
She and other female veterans on the trip talked about the difference between public perception of women in the military and the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, where danger is everywhere.
“They say that they don’t put women on the front lines, but now there is no front line,” Stubbendick said. “We are actually out there.”