On the rare occasion that 50 women gather together in the military, their male counterparts hover anxiously outside the room, wondering what conspiracies they must be plotting within. So you can imagine the awe and great personal fulfillment I felt when 52 women veterans from The Mission Continues - representing all five branches of the military - came together for the first time in April to share stories, to laugh, and to learn.
In early April, our inaugural Women Veterans Leadership Summit was organized from a place of great need, as highlighted by the results of our 2015 survey of women veterans from across the country. The survey identified the very unique challenges that women veterans face when returning home to our communities. The weekend wasn't about health care, counseling, sexual assault, or post-traumatic stress - all critically important topics in their own right - but not where our survey revealed the gaping holes in support. The weekend was about strength, resilience and belonging. It was about finding the balance between that strength and the authenticity that so often is lost during our years on active duty.
We came together to celebrate ourselves, each other, and our status as veterans, something that women struggle with in our society. In a time when women make up just more than 15 percent of our Armed Forces, the picture that most hold in their minds of a veteran more closely resembles the chiseled, square-jawed, male soldier than the feminine, sociable, and strong-minded women who sat to my left and right. It's difficult to overstate the toll that it takes, to have to work so hard to prove ourselves twice - both on the battlefield, and again here at home as we strive to expand that traditional picture of a warrior.
The culmination of the weekend happened for me during a community service project we led at an elementary school in an impoverished area of the city. This is where I saw these women truly shine.
Too many times at service projects, I've seen women veterans taking a support role - content to let their male counterparts lead. But on this day, they stepped up. Women led others as they measured and cut lumber like the pros that they are, they carried heavy loads, they drilled, they planted, and they raked.
Above the buzz of the saws and the hammers, the sound that brought me to tears of joy and gratification was the sound of laughter. It was the sweet and beautiful sound of women letting go of the layers of expectation and judgment, shedding the heavy burden of the mask that they've worn for many years while they sought to fit in and gain acceptance. On that morning, my sisters in arms were doing much more than surviving - they were thriving. Thriving in a way that was simply not possible while in the high-pressure, male-dominated environment of the military.
The feedback from the weekend was telling. The survey responses were overwhelmingly positive and uplifting. The women that attended described the whole experience as "self-care," and an event that will change their lives forever. Mine too, ladies.
Next year, we head to San Francisco for our Second Annual Women Veterans Leadership Summit. We'll keep it small and intimate. But, we are committed to ensuring that the ripples and waves of impact from this Summit reverberate throughout the veteran community and society as a whole.
We're building momentum, and we need others to join us. More information sharing. More collaboration. More impact. And yes, more laughter. It's time our women veterans were recognized as equals, and it's long past time that they recognized themselves as assets.