Women Veterans and Active Duty members from the University of North Florida and surrounding areas came together Tuesday for a discussion on their experiences in and out the service.
To kick off the discussion, Selena Hernandez-Haines, a retired Navy Commander who now is the Director of Military Recruitment at Flagler College, shared how the military had changed for women over her years in the service.
During her keynote address Hernandez-Haines cited examples such as women finally being able to work on submarines.
She asked three questions to get a feeling for the audience that focused on who knew someone who served in the military and who among them had served. With the majority of the room’s hands going up, she noted that the military touches a large number of people daily.
According to Hernandez-Haines, Duval County has the highest population of veterans in Florida.
The on-campus Military and Veterans Resource Center sought out a diverse group of ladies with experiences stretching from the Korean War to today’s military conflicts to speak on the panel.
A common theme emerged: better resources for women veterans are needed.
“What we are trying to communicate is that women veterans, you are not alone. That you have a support group here whether you realize it or not,” Diane Stover, Coordinator and Outreach Specialist of the UNF’s Military and Veterans Resource Center said.
The women spoke about issues they’ve faced before and after serving including: homelessness, their mental health and defining their identities.
Virginia Wygonik joined the Women Army Corps in 1952. She was emotional during her talk on the panel as she thought back to her experiences.
Wygonik, who is white, described how during her time not only were service members separated by gender but also by race.
The 85-year-old expressed her disappointment at not being allowed to serve overseas. “I wanted to go to Korea but they wouldn’t let me.”
Hellena Pugh came to the panel after being invited by fellow members of the ZAHARA Veterans Network and some UNF students. For her, being able to interact with someone from the Korean War generation was a rare opportunity.
“I would say this entire week is a week of recognition for female veterans, we are really excited about for each and every single opportunity to reach out and be and network with other female veterans,” Pugh said.
Fellow panelist Michelle Poitier, a Navy veteran, touched on her advocacy group. She said Healing Women Healing Nations of NE Florida is a service for those in the military.
“Being a voice for veterans that don’t have a voice,” Poitier said.
Poitier wanted the audience, especially employers, to know those who suffered from trauma from their time in the military shouldn’t be seen as a just a victim.
“Yes they may have a diagnosis, but that [is] not the sum of who they are,” Poitier said.
A similar sediment was made by panelist Staff Segregant Amanda McGhee as she spoke about her time being part of an integration process with male units in the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton.
Her straight-to-the-point response one day during formation made the audience laugh.
“I’m a female and I’m your intelligence chief. Any questions,” McGhee recounted.
The panel was part of a series of citywide events this week recognizing women veterans with the talks between Representatives John Rutherford and Al Lawson in the works for a national one.
Joslyn Simmons can be reached at email@example.com, 904-358-6316