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Rosenblum: Stigma still lingers for female vets

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • May 7, 2014 - 8:40 PM

Trista Matascastillo was walking on air Monday, after the Minnesota House unanimously passed a bill to establish a license plate honoring the contributions of women veterans.

It didn’t take long, though, for Matascastillo to remember why she’s been fighting so hard for three years.

As my colleague Mark Brunswick reported Wednesday, a bill heading to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk would establish plates with the inscription “Woman Veteran.”

Women would pay the same $10 charged for all veteran plates.

The Senate also supported the measure with a 54-9 vote, but not without backlash. Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said that her mother, who served in the American Red Cross during WWII driving a club mobile, would be embarrassed by the idea. “There are over 20 veterans license plates and they don’t segregate between men and women,” Ruud said.

“We’ve never made that distinction. I think that’s a bad road to go down.”

Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, called the measure an example of political correctness.

Jill Troutner says such comments are “kind of shocking.” Troutner, 43, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and serves with the Army National Guard. She learned about the license plate effort earlier this year and instantly understood the rationale behind it.

The worst, she said, is when she tells people she served in the Army and they say, “I don’t believe you.”

“It’s like you’re always having to explain and defend yourself,” Troutner said “This [plate] is a really big deal to women.”

Since the effort began in 2011, the number of females veterans in Minnesota has grown from 23,000 to 29,000. Close to 3 million women have served or still serve nationwide.

Despite those numbers, it’s a rare woman vet who can’t share a story of stepping out of her car and feeling instantly deflated.

“We heard testimony after testimony,” said Matascastillo, a former Marine and Army military police commander in the Minnesota National Guard.

“If they’re younger, they’re asked, ‘Is that your father’s car?’ If they’re older, it’s ‘Where did your husband serve?’ Over and over. We have had such a long-standing stereotype. Even the word ‘vet’ still makes some people think of World War II and their grandfather.”

Matascastillo’s favorite comment, though, is “You don’t look like a veteran!”

But she’s quick to note the “ton of support” from male counterparts, including her husband, also a veteran. “They see the struggles we’ve had. They’re married to us. We’re their mothers, their sisters. They get it.”

Or, with a little education, they get it.

Troutner “cornered” her senator, Warren Limmer, who was not an early supporter of the measure. “I had a great talk with him,” she said. “Initially, he didn’t support it. He asked, ‘Why? We have so many [veterans] license plates.’

“I said, ‘Yes, but not one of them is women-specific and the assumption always is that the plate is for a man.’ ”

Seven other states have female vet plates. Four states have bills in the works. Minnesota’s bill was carried by Rep. Jerry Newton and Sen. Alice Johnson.

Since January, Matascastillo and Troutner have testified in front of at least six committees, called, e-mailed and sent handwritten notes to supporters, requested meetings and updated their Women Veterans Initiative Facebook page.

“We’re very hopeful that [Gov. Dayton] will sign it into law,” Matascastillo said. “I didn’t think it would take this long, but I’m glad it was finally accomplished.”

Update: Happy Feet

Last November, I wrote about Albert Nyembwe’s nonprofit, the Cilongo Foundation of Blaine, which held its first shoe drive with great success. Minnesotans donated 900 pairs of shoes and 140 pairs of socks. Many shoes and socks were quickly shipped to Kenya, Liberia and Sierra Leone, thanks to the generosity of local churches, which covered the postal fees. But Nyembwe is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children walk barefoot for miles and the postal service is less than reliable. Could somebody please help get those shoes to needy children?

Betsy Spethmann stepped up. The executive director of the Northfield Area United Way appealed to her Northfield Rotary Club, which took on the project and donated $2,000. (The Woodbury Rotary Club pitched in another $500 and the Rotary District offered a $2,500 match.) The Rotarians then partnered with St. Paul-based Books For Africa. On Thursday, 739 pairs of shoes and 223 pairs of socks (as well as $165,000 in donated books) head to the Atlanta warehouse of Books For Africa, and then in shipping containers to the Congo capital of Kinshasa, where the Rotary Club there will receive them in three to four weeks.

“I am happy!” said Nyembwe, who was helping to move items at Books for Africa in St. Paul last Saturday. Spethmann is happy, too. “It feels so awesome to say, ‘Here’s partner A, B, C and D. If we pull it together, something really valuable can happen.’ ”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum

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