Terri Winter still relishes the uniform.

Decades after leaving the army, she has a chance once each week to don the crisp black and white, her long hair wrangled into a tight bun.

“Military Terri,” she mimes when she’s wearing street clothes, smiling and holding her hair aloft.

As commander of the Fort Snelling Memorial Rifle Squad, the 51-year-old Winter is the first woman to do the job in the squad’s 35-year history.

There’s been pushback from the beginning, which she and other squad members — veteran volunteers from WWII onward — attribute to one simple fact: She’s a woman.

“This whole year has been a hard, hard year for Terri,” said Rifle Squad member Allan Johnson. “But she’s getting through it.”

Though they represent nearly 30,000 people in Minnesota and about 2 million nationwide, female veterans often struggle to find community after leaving the military. Women’s groups are few and often strapped for resources. Groups dominated by men aren’t hard to find but may not take women members seriously.

“For lots of reasons historically and culturally,” said Trista Matascastillo, who chairs the Women Veterans Initiative, “women leave the military service and nobody ever thinks about it, really, again.”

But amid the challenges, the Rifle Squad has been a home for Winter, a place where she found the pieces of military life that she’d missed after leaving the army.

“It’s like I have [127] brothers and fathers and uncles who are looking out for me,” she said.

At the Women Veterans of Minnesota annual meeting in early November, dozens of women — from WWII to the War on Terror — packed a room at the Fort Snelling Officers’ Club.

Winter, wearing a sparkling blouse punctuated by a Rifle Squad pendant around her neck, had been invited to speak. Standing at the front of the room, she asked the women to join her.

She’s currently the only woman in the 127-member squad. But she’s used to being outnumbered.

At 17, she graduated from basic training in a class that was just 25 percent female — one of the nation’s first coed classes. For all 12 weeks, an armed guard stood outside the women’s barracks at night to protect them from their classmates. By day two, Winter said, she realized she had to be tougher than all of the men there if she was going to make it.

“I would say a woman who has been successful has worked 10 times as hard as a man who’s been successful in the military, because she’s had to,” Matascastillo said.

More than three decades after graduating from basic training, becoming a mother, leaving the military, starting college at 45 and working as everything from a bartender to a dental assistant, Winter has brought that same toughness and perfectionism to the Rifle Squad.

Early on, some squad members tried to change the group’s bylaws so that Winter might not have been able to run for commander at all. But others spoke out, and when Election Day came her opponent dropped out, leaving her to be elected unanimously.

The week before the squad’s 35-year anniversary celebration, Winter spent two days stringing 300 Rifle Squad pendants onto red, white and blue ribbons. She’d bought them as a surprise, but the order had come in wrong, so she fixed them quietly. When the men talk about her, they always bring up the celebration, widely considered to be the best the squad ever had.

Amid the day-to-day work, Winter has a larger mission: preparing the squad — whose average member is 77 — for the future. Recruiting women is part of that goal.

“It’s not just guys’ work,” she said. “There’s more to it.”

When Matascastillo left the military in 2008, she felt lost. Like Winter, she’d enlisted at 17, knowing there was nothing else she wanted to do.

But when she started looking for a veterans’ community, she felt alone. It’s a common experience — she and other female veterans refer to themselves, half-jokingly, as “unicorns:” Everyone has heard of them, but no one has seen them.

Matascastillo tried out the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but neither was a good fit. There was a lot of what she calls “fact-checking.” It’s normal for veterans to ask each other a lot of questions about their service in order to determine legitimacy, she said. But for women, it’s ramped up.

“It’s that constant, ‘Are you good enough? Are you smart enough? Do you really have the credibility?’ And it just is exhausting,” she said.

On the Rifle Squad, being the new guy is tough enough as it is.

“I don’t think I talked to anybody for half a year,” said squad member Richard Geis. “People just kind of listen at first, and watch.”

To find her way, Winter has struck a balance between tough and tender. She is small and strong, often adorned with bright, colorful makeup and jewelry that sparkles as she moves. She’s also foul-mouthed and quick to laugh, never missing an opportunity to jab one of her squad members.

“They’ve warmed up to her,” Geis said. “And she can dish it out.”

On a Tuesday morning in October, the cemetery grounds stretched wide and green beneath a brilliant blue sky, the autumn sun illuminating thousands of headstones in blazing white.

The 26 squad members who volunteer on Tuesdays moved quickly from one part of the cemetery to another, meeting grieving families in their rows of cars. Lining up, firing their rifles, raising flags, playing taps.

In 35 years, the Rifle Squad has performed funeral honors Monday through Friday in sun, rain and bitter cold — a total of nearly 70,000 times. Members say the experience never fails to move them.

“It’s not often that you go to 13-15 funerals a day without having changed,” said squad member Gordy Bauer.

In the small building where the Rifle Squad meets, stores equipment and spends time chatting and playing cribbage during breaks, there’s a wall lined with letters from families expressing their gratitude.

Leaving the building one autumn afternoon, Winter pointed out the mosaic of cards, her eyes moving across the handwritten words.

“If I had to give it up, I’d be brokenhearted,” she said. “You might as well put the nail in the coffin and throw me in the ground.”

 

Emma Nelson • 952-746-3287