Army veteran Erin Colson has long wanted to gather female veterans from across the state in one place to talk about the unique issues facing women who have served in uniform.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a very long time — before I even got this job,” said Colson, 43, who is the state women’s coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs.
This weekend it’s finally happening. More than 150 women veterans will gather Saturday and Sunday in Kearney for the department's first Nebraska Women Veterans Symposium.
The event, at the Holiday Inn, will feature panel discussions, listening sessions and a keynote address by Denise Rohan, past national commander of the American Legion.
The New Century Art Guild will put on an exhibition of art by women veterans, and Warrior Writers will conduct a journaling exercise. Interviews will be conducted for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress, an oral history collection created in 2000.
The symposium will also include a screening of “Lioness,” a documentary about some of the first women to serve with previously all-male Marine combat units in Iraq in 2004.
It’s thought to be the largest gathering of female veterans in Nebraska since the Flight of Honor for female veterans to Washington, D.C., which took place exactly four years ago.
“We’re super-duper excited for the symposium,” said Jen Jelinek, founder of a new support group called Nebraska/Western Iowa Women Veterans that is focused on suicide prevention.
Women currently make up about 16% of the U.S. armed forces, according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institution on diversity in the armed forces. They have served in uniform at least since World War II. But only in the post-9/11 era have women become fully integrated at all ranks and in all kinds of jobs, including combat arms.
Jelinek, 36, served in the Army from 2007-13 as a behavioral health specialist. She’ll take part in a panel called “Celebrating Who I Was and What I’ve Become.”
“Now we have a chance to reflect on the long term of service since 9/11,” she said. “We all come from different walks of life. But we have the same story.”
Every woman veteran has had the experience of serving in a male-dominated institution. Colson said that includes those set up to serve veterans.
“The VA has come a long way, but it hasn’t gone far enough,” she said.
Colson said she sometimes visits the VA with her husband, who is a twice-wounded combat veteran.
“They automatically assume that he’s the veteran, when it’s me coming in for the appointment,” she said.
She has also had the experience of being left out when male veterans around her are thanked for their service.
“There was a little twinge like, ‘Hey, me too,’ ” she said.
Colson said she also hopes to use the conference to draw in women vets from rural areas, who often feel isolated from the veteran community. Kearney was chosen for this first symposium because it is closer to more of those areas than the urban centers of Omaha and Lincoln.
“Rural veterans in Nebraska are underserved,” she said. “Rural women veterans in Nebraska are very underserved.”
“I am hoping for a tighter veteran community. I’m hoping that women will be better-served,” she said. “I want them to know that, somewhere in the state, there’s someone they can talk to. They’re not forgotten.”
This portrait of female veterans from Nebraska, (from left) Spc. Anna Borst Pruitt of Leigh, Spc. Brandee Greenwood Siebe of Bennington and Capt. Rebecca Luther of Omaha, who all served in the Army Reserve will be displayed this weekend at the first Nebraska Women Veterans Symposium in Kearney.