Tennessee native Julia Sheriden knows the woes of women veterans. After graduating from high school, she left for Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., and began building a military career.
But at the end of her third year, just before she was set to make sergeant, Sheriden was attacked by a fellow Marine.
“It was pretty brutal,” she recalled. “I was held captive for several hours and suffered a lot of injuries. I took a direct blow to both sides of my jaw and to the back of my head. Brain injury, stabbing—I almost died. And the Marine Corps response was kind of to ignore that it happened.”
Once she was able to return to work, Sheriden fought crippling headaches and cognitive issues. Shortly thereafter, her career dreams were ended when she was denied the opportunity to re-enlist. Worse yet, it seemed she would not be given a proper medical discharge for her injuries.
“At the time, I was so lost in my own injuries and trauma that I wasn’t able to fight for myself,” said Sheriden. “Then my mom said, ‘I’m going to come down there, and you’re going to ask for a physical evaluation board. And then you’re going to call the Disabled American Veterans.’”
In 1981, Sheriden went to DAV to file her disability claim and became a life member. Though she only received a rating of 10 percent, working with DAV helped secure her medical discharge and preserve her rights.
But after a few months of separation, she encountered problems similar to those faced by many veterans today. She was unable to work, her separation stipend was running out, she needed to find a permanent place to live, and there was no place to turn for help.
“I spent about six months homeless, just bouncing from couch to couch,” Sheriden explained. Though unsure about her eligibility for unemployment benefits, she finally decided to apply. “Lo and behold, there was a woman veteran there, and she sat down and gave me ‘The Talk.’”
“The Talk,” as Sheriden calls it, is one that she has been giving to her fellow veterans ever since. “It’s about believing in yourself, sticking it out, not quitting and finding a direction. It remotivated me.”
Sheriden went back to college and, while waiting in the VA office one day, met a veteran who was having trouble with his disability claim. He was rated at just 20 percent for a serious knee injury, so Sheriden helped him file for a higher rating.
“A few months later, the guy found me on campus and told me he was re-rated at 50 percent,” she said. “I just changed that day. Even though I couldn’t be an activeduty Marine anymore, I realized that I might still have importance.”
She began to get more involved with DAV, becoming a Chapter Service Officer and a Chapter Commander, all while continuing to battle the VA for 18 years over her own claim. These experiences led her to establish her own nonprofit organization, Outreach and Resource Services for Women Veterans (OARS).
OARS was officially granted nonprofit status in 2012 in the state of Washington and assisted roughly 150 women in its first year. Sheriden’s program is a onestop online resource for women veterans, offering oneon-one consultation and links to resources for benefits, education, crisis assistance and trauma recovery services.
For her work with OARS, Sheriden was named the 2013 winner of the prestigious Washington State Jefferson Award, which recognizes individuals who exemplify outstanding community service.
“It’s such an honor, but this isn’t about Julia Sheriden. This is about veterans,” she said. “I think about the people whose claims I didn’t succeed with, who passed away before they got what they deserved. I feel like I’m honoring them when I accept the award, and I can talk to people about our lives as veterans. It tells people about how much dedication veterans have to helping other veterans.
“It’s really rewarding to know that people—thousands and thousands of them—respect what I do and what we do as DAV,” she said. “It shows that people realize women veterans have needs and issues, and the time to help is now, to make sure veterans are able to have the highest quality of life possible. This award kind of brings my life full circle.”