For the past seven years, Andrea Norton has filled several key roles at the Saginaw VA Medical Center - helping homeless veterans and those with severe mental health diagnoses, serving as the first LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator and, now, as Women Veterans Program Manager.
But while Andrea, an Air Force veteran, sees the VA as a place that welcomes and serves all veterans, it hasn't always been this way.
When she started using VA services in Lansing in 2008, the local clinic lacked a women's health provider. At that time, a nurse practitioner from Battle Creek would travel to Lansing once a month to provide basic women's wellness exams.
Access for women veterans was terrible, she said, and needed to change. Andrea, a social worker, wanted to be part of that change. So when the Saginaw Women Veterans Program Manager position opened up in 2017, she jumped at it.
"One of the biggest reasons I wanted to work in women's health within the VA," Andrea says, "was to make it better for other women veterans."
Andrea graduated from high school in Bay City in 1998 and immediately enlisted in the Air Force, seeing it as act of rebellion.
"It was the thing nobody would have expected me to do," said Andrea, who didn't come from a military family. "I thought it was a good way to travel, learn valuable skills, get an education and serve my country."
She would serve eight and a half years in intelligence-related jobs - first as an imagery analyst at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and then as an intelligence-analysis instructor based in San Diego.
About three years into her service, terrorists attacked the U.S. on 9/11, and Andrea watched the military change almost overnight. The nature of her work changed drastically, her schedule shifted from days to nights and she started working 12-hour shifts.
In 2005, she deployed to Afghanistan. She was sent to Kabul, where she conducted site surveys on non-military places such as schools, orphanages and refugee camps. She remembers playing with two little refugee girls, spinning and laughing until they all got dizzy and fell down.
"It was the exact thing I remembered doing when I was their age," Andrea says. "Thousands of miles away, in a country and culture very different from my own, I was playing the same 'dizzy game' that I played as a kid. It taught me how much more similar we all are, yet we focus so much on our differences."
Andrea values her time in the Air Force and the opportunities it provided. But as a woman in a male-dominated force, and a bisexual airman, her service was also marred with harassment.
Andrea is a victim of military sexual trauma and says looking back on that part of her service can be painful. She says she wasn't prepared for the rampant sexism and the way many men believed she didn't belong in the uniform.
"I felt like I had to work twice as hard to earn half the respect with some folks. Ultimately though, my work shined brighter than their prejudice."
Serving under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Andrea says was never able to show up as her full self and that she was forced to hide aspects of her identity.
"I fell in love with a woman when I was 19 and watched other LGBTQ service members be kicked out of the service for who they loved," she says. "I had to constantly censor myself and missed out on a lot of opportunities for connection because the consequences were too great."
Andrea transitioned out of the military in January 2007, staying in San Diego for six months to finish a couple college courses while working at Home Depot.
In mid-2007, she came home to Michigan and enrolled at Michigan State University, where she would earn a bachelor's degree in social work in 2011 and a master's in social work in 2013.
But while at MSU, Andrea began to struggle with her transition. She wasn't familiar with the Lansing area, didn't know anybody and felt uncomfortable and awkward taking undergrad classes with students 10 years younger.
She also struggled with her identity. Now out of the military, Andrea could openly date whoever she wanted for the first time. But since she had masked who she was throughout her service, she now found it difficult to connect with people in the civilian world.
"I didn't know how to live my life without hiding major aspects of my identity," Andrea says. "I was very lost."
Andrea's classes showed her a new way of viewing the world - through more of a pacifist lens, which made it difficult to reconcile her service. She became depressed and had to force herself to leave her apartment to even go to class. Luckily, her struggles were spotted by one of her professors, Austin Jackson, a fellow veteran.
Jackson was the first real connection Andrea made in civilian life. He helped her come to terms with her service and to start identifying as a veteran. He also encouraged her to get into therapy to help deal with some of her transition-related struggles.
"If it wasn't for a professor of mine reaching out to me and making that connection, I wouldn't be here today," she says. "He truly saved my life and I will always hold Dr. Jackson in high regards for that."
Andrea started to meet other women veterans and saw how little visibility and recognition they got. Recognizing the need for a sense of community and access to better health care services, she decided to be more vocal and active in pushing for those changes.
She was hired at the Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center in Saginaw in mid-2014 as a housing specialist in the VA's Homeless Veterans Program. The next year, she was named the facility's first LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator, and then, in 2016, became a case manager in the Mental Health Intensive Case Management Program. In that role, she supported veterans with severe and persistent mental health diagnoses and helped them avoid hospitalization.
By 2017, Andrea was committed to serving the community and the area, so when the Women Veterans Program Manager position opened up in March, she knew she had to apply. The role was still fairly new to VA systems.
"I thought, this would be a really good opportunity to actually change some things," Andrea says. "To really get in there and have a long-term plan."
In her role, Andrea oversees the Women Veterans Program at the Saginaw VA Medical Center and all nine Community Based Outpatient Clinics in the system. She advocates for women and LGBTQ veterans' health care, privacy and safety needs. She coordinates education activities and orients all new VA employees on women veteran and LGBTQ veteran health disparities, while also providing steps for employees to demonstrate commitment to diversity and inclusion.
One common misunderstanding Andrea hears is that veterans who enroll in VA health care when they don't necessarily need it are taking it away from those who do. But the reality is that VA health care services are beneficial for all when the services are used.
"We need veterans to enroll in and utilize services so that they can expand and improve and get better," she says. "And they don't do that when people stop coming. If people don't use them, then they go away."
Veterans are a very diverse group, and Andrea is proud to serve them as part of the VA.
"If you qualify for health care, you should be able to get your health care needs met here," Andrea says. "If we can't do it physically in this building, then we should be able to make sure that you can get them that and coordinate that care. And the more people that come, the more services we can offer."
Do you see yourself or your military experiences in Andrea? Reach out to other women of the military and encourage them through your story to get a benefits checkup or connect with other veteran service organizations or women's groups.