Jennifer Diaz has been a member of the Army National Guard since 1995. But when strangers notice the flag tattooed on her shoulder, or the National Guard license plate on her car, she readies for the question:
Where did your husband serve?
When she clarifies that she’s the veteran, people are embarrassed and apologize. “We’re in a male-dominated field, so I understand,” she said.
Bridget Cronin wants to save others from making the same mistake.
She is driving a new awareness campaign called I Am Not Invisible. Its mission is to bring female veterans out of the shadows to tell stories of their unique challenges and formidable contributions to all branches of our military.
The campaign, supported by several veterans groups, includes broadcast public service announcements and a traveling photo show featuring 33 Minnesota women, including Diaz, who have served, or continue to serve, in myriad capacities. They are bomb technicians, intelligence officers, pilots, photojournalists and much more.
It’s time, Cronin said.
“Men have veterans stickers, hats, tattoos,” she said. “They have no problem telling you where they served and what they did. Women vets don’t do that.”
The show enjoyed an enthusiastic kickoff at the State Capitol rotunda in February. It will travel throughout the state for six months before welcoming perhaps its biggest audience at the Minnesota State Fair this summer.
Cronin noted that when the featured women arrived at the Capitol for a private launch event, many confessed that they had never publicly called themselves veterans.
“Women have felt invisible, their service ignored. We want women veterans to know, ‘You are respected. We just need to know where you are.’ ”
Cronin, of St. Paul, is executive director of the Ars Bellum Foundation (arsbellumfoundation.org), which provides art therapy programs to Minnesota veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Ars Bellum is Latin for “arts of war.”
Working with women who suffered from military sexual trauma was what motivated Cronin to launch I Am Not Invisible. She partnered with Women Veterans Initiative, the Minnesota VFW Charitable Association, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and 23rd Veteran, a Duluth-based nonprofit that provides transitional programs for vets.
More than 29,000 female veterans call Minnesota home, Cronin said. And Minnesotans influence every aspect of I Am Not Invisible.
Dallas Smith, the granddaughter of two veterans, shot the portraits. Minnesota filmmaker Paul von Stoetzel, an Army veteran, produced the PSAs. The prints were produced by veteran-owned Minuteman Press in Ham Lake. The campaign was inspired by a similar program in Oregon.
Last August, Cronin sent out a call for volunteers. The response, she said, was fast “and huge.”
Women stepped up to be photographed from all branches and from every war spanning 70 years. One participant, a member of the World War II WAVES, trained Tyrone Power, an American film star who served in the Marine Corps. Other women served in Vietnam. Some serve today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
LaTia DeAmparo is one of the veterans featured in the campaign. She served in the U.S. Army from 1984 to 1986 with military police stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, and in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1988 to 1991 in psychological operations.
In her mini-biography that appears with her poster-size photo, she writes that not until participating in a corporate event and listening to the speaker introduce her as an “honored service member” did she “own it for the first time.”
Jee Taylor enlisted at 17, 18 days after graduating from high school, and served in the Air Force from 2006 to 2013. In Bagram, Afghanistan, she was the only female day shift command post controller.
Diaz, 42, joined the Army National Guard at 20. “Sometimes, something finds you,” said Diaz, noting that her grandfather was a Navy frogman before the creation of the Navy SEALs. Her father served for four years in the Navy.
“It’s the only thing they know,” she said of her four kids, ages 16, 14, 6 and 4, about having a military mom.
Despite occasional questions by strangers, such as, “What kind of a mother would leave her babies and go off to war?” she said she’s gotten amazing support, especially from Gabe, her husband of 19 years. “It takes a strong man to support a woman in the military,” she said.
Betty Jeanne Mahaffey, an obstetrics and gynecology nurse practitioner, served in the Navy from 1969 to 1992, including a tour in Vietnam on the U.S. Navy hospital ship Sanctuary in 1971.
Her father was a 20-year Navy man who swore her into the Navy. She was the only one of six siblings to enlist.
“I was so naive,” said Mahaffey, 70. “I was so excited to be able to care for people. I always wanted to go to Disneyland. I went on my way to Vietnam.”
She recalls with amusement the female uniform of the time — white dress and white cap. Pantsuits were permitted, finally, in about 1974.
“The men,” she said, “were respectful. I never encountered any problems. They were thankful to have us there.”
She wears a “Minnesota Remembers Vietnam” pin proudly and keeps as mementos a yearbook of her tour on the Sanctuary, as well as her military jacket.
She added with excitement that she’ll accompany a World War II veteran on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in April.
“I hope that as we go around the state, people take away that women don’t just serve,” Cronin said. “Women serve with honor and distinction, and they’re proud of their service. And they would do it again.”