From Baghdad to Manistique, women veterans are writing their stories – and supporting one another
Retired Army Col. Rhoda Daniel shares her story of leading her soldiers through a chaotic firefight and rescue mission in Baghdad. She spoke at the MVAA Women Veterans Conference in Lansing. Photos courtesy of Michigan National Guard.
One Friday night in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Rhoda Daniel was driving back to base from an executive meeting when she saw her young soldiers scrambling around in a panic. As she pulled up, she realized they were taking fire from insurgents and that two of her soldiers were pinned down on a rooftop.
Daniel's most experienced fighters, her noncommissioned officers, were nowhere to be found. They had decided to hold a surf-and-turf dinner in the mess hall.
She kicked into combat mode, shouting orders to take cover and secure the area. She learned that one of the pinned-down soldiers was a 19-year-old private she had recruited to the unit for his IT expertise.
"This night is now personal," Daniel says. "I'll be damned if I'm losing anyone tonight."
Order was restored. Discipline returned. Daniel got the soldiers down safely from the rooftop and made the call for Apache helicopters to lay down fire on the insurgents. She would lose no soldiers this night because of her quick, decisive actions.
"This night cemented in my mind what can happen in the absence of leadership," Daniel says. She then asks: "Does leadership have anything to do with gender?"
The answer, as she so aptly proved, is no.
Women veterans listen to Rhoda Daniel. Nearly 150 attended the conference.
This is who we are
Daniel spoke at the MVAA's first Women Veterans Conference – one of 144 women veterans who came together to share testimonies, connect and support one another. The crowd was a mixture of young and old; combat and non-combat vets; grandmothers, moms and daughters; LGBTQ vets; black, brown and white faces from all over Michigan.
So who are we?
We are Rhoda Daniel, a decorated combat veteran who served 34 years in the Army, rising to the rank of colonel and commanding a unit of 3,000 soldiers. Daniel is now a yoga and Pilates instructor in Freeland. She has PTSD and remembers the soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice – including a young NCO to whom she taught yoga in Iraq. He survived two deployments, lost friends in battle, then returned home and died by suicide.
"Sometimes," Daniel says, "war doesn't kill right away."
We are Elsie Carlson, an Army veteran and Veteran Service Officer for Schoolcraft County in the Upper Peninsula. Carlson is one of the only Black people in the Manistique area. She's had veterans who didn't want to work with her because the color of her skin and says she's struggling to attract women to a veterans group even though she knows they're out there. Despite these challenges, Carlson continues, year after year, to fight for her fellow veterans.
We are Meghan Shellington, an Army veteran and National Guard member who not so long ago was homeless with three young children and didn't know where to turn. She eventually got help, got on her feet and became a staunch advocate for veterans, spreading the word on veteran-specific services. "Now I make sure everybody knows what's out there and what's available," she says.
We are Theresa Robinson, a Navy veteran who experienced frequent sexual harassment in the military and now serves as a mentor for the Kent County Veterans Treatment Court. Robinson says she recently sat and cried with a young woman veteran over their painful experiences in the military.
"I am totally committed to making a change for female veterans," she says. "People overlook us all the time. I want females to be able to serve and serve safely, to be able to climb the ranks and to be able to be recognized as veterans."
Elsie Carlson is an Army veteran, a Veteran Service Officer in the Upper Peninsula's Schoolcraft County and a longtime advocate for veteran families.
Navy veteran Theresa Robinson speaks about her role in MVAA's influential She is A Veteran campaign. Air Force veteran Andrea Norton, left, and Army veteran Meghan Shellington, right, were also featured in the campaign.
Write your own story
And there is me: Zaneta Adams, an Army veteran who suffered a near-crippling back injury while preparing to deploy to Iraq. I was dismissed for years because my injury didn't happen in combat. Temporarily confined to a wheelchair and unable to care for myself, I became depressed and decided to end my life. My young daughter saved me, simply by being there, and I would eventually find my calling at a women veterans retreat. I got my law degree and have spent most of my adult life advocating for veterans of all stripes.
Sunday marked my three-year anniversary as director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. I am the first woman veteran in Michigan history to be appointed to a governor's cabinet position. I say this not to toot my horn, but to emphasize what women veterans are capable of when we step up. When we lead by example.
Be authentic. Be strong. Be confident. When you walk into that room for a job interview, don't be modest. Sell yourself and sell yourself well.
One of our presenters, Lansing consultant Lisa Fisher, asked of our women veterans, what is your superpower? The answers came pouring out: Handling pressure. Empathy. Communication. Organization. Compassion. Analyzation. Resiliency. Leadership.
Women often forget their gifts and talents, Fisher says. We let society's limiting beliefs get in our heads and hold us back.
"Don't let those naysayers write your story," Fisher says. "Write your own story."
Yes. Women veterans are 43,000 strong in Michigan and 2 million strong nationwide, and our ranks are growing. But if we're going to get better women veterans' health care, if we're going to grow membership in veterans' groups, if we're going to attain more positions of power, we first have to believe that we can. And then we have to work for it, and work together, no matter how exhausting or difficult it gets.
Let's tell our stories and do our very best to improve women veterans' standing and services. I'm confident that's a mission all veterans can get behind.
Call 1-800-MICH-VET (1-800-642-4838) or visit michigan.gov/WomenVeterans to learn more about women veteran services and resources. You can also join the Military Sisterhood Initiative to connect with fellow women veterans in your area at https://www.challengeamerica.com/msi.
Director, Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency
MVAA Director Zaneta Adams speaks at the Women Veterans Conference. On the far left is Erika Hoover, MVAA's women veterans and special populations coordinator, who spearheaded the first-ever conference.
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