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A discussion with female veterans

WomenSource panel talks about women’s transition from active duty to civilian life

POSTED: November 13, 2013 12:39 a.m.

Veterans, from left, Tonya Butler-Collins, Bridgette McCoy, Amy Stevens and Didi Ucherkemur talk with WomenSource members and the public during a panel discussion on women vets at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center.

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“We’re different than men in a lot of ways,” Tonya Butler-Collins said as she carried the microphone across the room to a small corner table where three other women veterans sat. 

“When we get out, we’re trained to compartmentalize. It was a part of our past. It was a job we did. We come out. We move on. We become wives, mothers, caregivers. So when anyone asks, we say, ‘Yeah, I was in the military.’ And that’s the extent of the conversation. There are things we want you to understand so you can be a part of the solution.”

WomenSource hosted a screening of the documentary film “SERVICE: When Women Come Marching Home” on Tuesday night at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center in Gainesville. 

The documentary highlights the first wave of mothers, daughters and sisters returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their transition from active duty to civilian life. 

A panel discussion with four women veterans followed the film. U.S. Army veterans Spc. Bridgette McCoy and Sgt. Tonya Butler-Collins, U.S. Navy Lt. Amy Stevens and U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Didi Ucherkemur answered questions about their experiences both in and out of the service.

Butler-Collins said she hoped starting a conversation about women veterans with civilian women in the community would bring about more opportunities to support the growing demographic. 

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs Women Veterans Task Force, women make up the fastest-growing unit of veterans. 

As of September, Georgia ranks fifth in the country in number of female veterans at 106,857. The U.S. Census Bureau 2012 American Community Survey reports 939 of the 12,495 veterans in Hall County are women, about 7.5 percent.

The conversation covered serious topics like post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma, joblessness and homelessness, but the atmosphere was kept light with jokes and the occasional shoe compliment.

“We knew we needed to create a community of women serving women,” Butler-Collins said. “A lot of times the difficulties we have (transitioning) in is because of other women (who) don’t accept us back in the community. They don’t talk to us, know what to talk to us about, and we end up falling into a category of ‘invisible women.’”

Many veterans may have “invisible disabilities” brought on by injury or mental conditions, like PTSD and MST. 

McCoy, an Atlanta resident and veteran featured in the film, is an advocate for victims of military sexual trauma. McCoy has spoken before the media and in a 2011 Senate committee hearing about her experience with rape and sexual harassment in the military.

“I’ve made it my life’s mission traveling around the country trying to enact changing the laws of how men and women are treated as it relates to sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape,” McCoy said. “I know they call it MST and that makes us think it’s something way off far in the distance in the military, but we need to think about it as it is what it is.”

Stevens is a clinical consultant and counselor and has worked as the director of psychological health for the Georgia National Guard. In the 1980s, Stevens was one of the first trainers in the Navy to work on prevention of sexual harassment.

Stevens encouraged advocacy on behalf of men and women affected by MST and urged people to contact legislators to change laws regarding treatment of MST.

Several women in the audience wanted to know how they could help encourage servicewomen in the community. 

Butler-Collins said one of the most important things to remember is veterans are people, too, and share the same feelings and interests as civilians.

McCoy recommended getting involved with community veterans organizations and asking for information about how women veterans are being served. 

Butler-Collins said one of the group’s aspirations is to eventually build a shelter for women veterans in the area.


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