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Vietnam-era veteran fights for the visibility of all servicewomen
As a woman in the service in the mid-1970s, Theresa Robinson remembers the catcalls, the vulgar comments, the crude jokes. It was a man's Navy, and the constant harassment left her feeling humiliated and invisible among her male counterparts.
That feeling of invisibility would follow her for several decades as Theresa struggled to be seen and recognized as a veteran.
But these experiences - and Theresa's ability to speak out for her female comrades - also paved the way for the active role she's taken in the veteran community.
"I personally don't need the recognition. I don't need anybody to thank me for what I did or what I'm doing now," Theresa says. "But I want there to be a female presence in our armed forces for generations to come. I want females to feel like they're visible, not invisible. I want somebody to see us."
"It was very degrading"
When Theresa joined the Navy in 1974, it was a different time. It was common for men to whistle at and make inappropriate and even vulgar remarks about how a woman looked.
She came to accept it as life in the military. "But when I look back on it now," she says, "it's not the way life should have been."
During her time at the Naval Training Center's Personnelman Class "A" school in Orlando, she said groups of men would stand in the third-floor windows and "rate" the women's behinds as they walked by in their dungarees.
She and her female comrades would think: "'This is stupid, this is just stupid.' But there was nothing you could do about it."
When she arrived at her duty station in San Diego, the former Naval Air Station Miramar, the harassment continued. Not having a car, she would walk from her barracks to the office in the hangar where she worked as a personnelman, or records clerk, often in dress uniform.
"It was not pretty walking to work; it was just awful," she says. "The things that would be hollered out of car windows. You'd want to look at people and say, 'Man, do you kiss your wife with those lips? Do you kiss your kids with those lips?'"
Back at the barracks, she considered wearing her dungarees to work, but found that wasn't any better "because people could see a lot more with your dungarees on. So then you start wearing a big coat to cover everything up. All of that did not feel good."
On a base dominated by males, Theresa never thought about telling anyone. "Who were you going to tell, some other man? They weren't going to do anything and I was just a lowly enlisted person."
This was a time when women were not allowed to serve aboard ships. But Theresa remembers being invited on a day cruise aboard the USS Kitty Hawk with some fellow servicewomen.
"It was a great experience," she says. "But immediately following the day cruise we were told to go change our clothes, go to another location for a dinner and dancing. Upon arriving it was evident they needed us there so the guys would have someone to dance with. It was very degrading."
Theresa, whose maiden name was Novakoski, also recalls inappropriate jokes aimed at her Polish heritage. The jokes flowed freely in her office until one day she countered a male colleague's joke with a Filipino joke.
"I was immediately called down to HR and reprimanded," Theresa says. "And then, all the jokes had to stop. l told the officer that I was fine not telling any ethnic jokes and certainly did not mean to offend anyone, but the Polish jokes must stop also. He was in agreement. It was a new experience for me, as I had never been made fun of for being Polish."
Making the transition
After serving for two and a half years, Theresa - who had married in the service - was discharged and transitioned to the active reserves. Her husband still had a year of service left, so they remained in San Diego. While serving as a reservist and coming in once a month, she found she was not looked on very favorably by active duty people.
She decided she was done with the military after she became pregnant with her first child. But once discharged, there was no help transitioning to civilian life. The transition assistance programs that exist today were not in place at the time.
"Nobody sat down with you and told you, here's where the VA is, don't forget to sign up for the American Legion, don't forget these benefits are available to you," Theresa says. "It was, here you go, bye!"
After her husband was discharged, they moved back to Grand Rapids to raise their family. She always knew she was a veteran, but never talked about it. "It was the end of Vietnam, nobody wanted to hear any of that," she says. Nobody would ask her if she was a veteran. They still don't.
Over the next 20 years, Theresa was a stay-at-home mom for her four children. She says her military training helped her immensely in leading her "troops," staying organized, ahead of disaster and always being prepared.
Once her children had grown, she earned a Realtor license. She found that putting together the extensive paperwork for a home sale is similar to the service records she dealt with every day in her military job.
"Some things just do not leave you," she says.
Speaking up for women veterans
Theresa started identifying as a veteran about 15 years ago. She cites the American Legion as a major factor.
Her brother-in-law convinced her to attend her first Legion meeting. She joined, and after just a few meetings was voted Second Vice Commander of American Legion Post 258.
She worked her way through the leadership chairs and eventually served as post Commander. After that, she got involved with the United Veterans Council of Kent County, once again working her way up through the chairs and ultimately serving as Commander for three years. She remains active in both organizations and is also a member of AMVETS, the Michigan Women Veterans Coalition and a mentor with the Kent County Veterans Treatment Court.
"If I hadn't joined the American Legion, I probably would not be as active in the veteran community as I am today," Theresa says. "So I do identify as a veteran, proudly. I've tried to do what I can."
But it hasn't come without adversity. She's had to prove herself every step of the way.
"It has become very, very, very evident to me that females in the military and female veterans are invisible," she says. "Sometimes to their comrades, most often to civilians."
Theresa often finds herself in public places with other veterans, all of them wearing veteran apparel. While the men are thanked for their service, the women are rarely addressed - and if they are, they are typically asked if their husband served or if they have a child serving.
"There is not a week that goes by that this doesn't happen," she says. "I'm still invisible. I'm standing here with a sign that says I am a female veteran, I served in the Navy, and people still don't recognize."
Theresa isn't afraid to stand up and say "I am a veteran" or to speak up for her fellow women veterans when exclusionary language is being used, but she acknowledges that not everyone is able to do this. Just as the women who served before her helped pave the way for her to serve in the 1970s, she hopes she can help future generations of servicewomen.
"I'd like to think that now as a veteran, I'm doing everything that I can do to help female veterans be recognized, be visible and be safe," she says. "That when they serve on active duty, you've got to feel safe, you've got to feel like you're a person - that you're not some little plaything for somebody else, that you're not going to be abused. I feel that as a veteran, that's my job now."
When Theresa talks with recently discharged women veterans, she finds they are facing many of the same issues she did and still have no place to go. She hopes She is A Veteran brings more awareness of the role servicewomen play and helps inspire a national movement that pushes the military to make changes.
"The good old boys club in the military has got to stop," she says. "Females should not have to feel unsafe while they're serving our country. Females should not have to feel objectified. Females should not have to feel that they can't go up for a job because they're afraid of their male counterparts. Promotion should come because of your skillset, because of how you've proven yourself, not because of your physical attributes."
She believes all veterans bear responsibility to help female veterans feel visible. She urges male veterans to notice their female comrades and introduce them when they are ignored. It's as simple as speaking up and saying, "She's a veteran, too. She served."
"I think, and this is just one person's opinion, female veterans can't be separated, female veterans have to be included," Theresa says. "Don't celebrate me and my service on female veterans day. I will stand tall shoulder to shoulder with my brothers that I served with on November 11th every single year. That's my Veterans Day. That belongs to me because I am a veteran."
Do you see yourself or your military experiences in Theresa? 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.
Facebook Live with Theresa Robinson, Erika Hoover, Director Zaneta Adams