South Dakota members spotlight unique needs of women veterans

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Army veteran Jill Baker (center left) focused on eliminating barriers that may prevent women from attending the wellness retreat, offering free child care and planning “mommy and me” activities as part of the agenda.

All eyes were on Lorrena Alameda, a member of the Dakota Sioux who served in Iraq, as she proudly presented the colors before a group of roughly 100 other women veterans.

Alameda, alongside a fellow soldier and a Navy veteran, performed color guard duties in half-military uniform, half-Native regalia, a beautiful blended tribute to both the community they were born into and the community they chose. Strapped to Alameda’s chest was a tiny baby girl, barely a month old.

The scene was entirely befitting the day’s event—the Stand Up for Women Veterans Wellness Retreat in Sioux Falls, South Dakota—in which women veterans were encouraged to not only attend but also bring their children along.

Army veteran Jill Baker, who serves as the Women Veterans Committee chair for DAV Chapter 1 in Sioux Falls, was one of the driving forces behind the event, which was sponsored by the chapter and Baker’s own organization. Baker and fellow Army veterans Helen Parr and Kim Hubers are a close-knit, dynamic trio who have seemingly cracked the code on engaging women in the veterans community.

“We thought, what’s the best way we can reach women veterans and those currently serving and bring them all together, make it as easy as possible, reduce barriers so they can just come enjoy that camaraderie that we feel together?” said Baker.

South Dakota DAV members (from left) Helen Parr, Jill Baker and Kim Hubers coordinated the Stand Up for Women Veterans Wellness Retreat with sponsorship by DAV Chapter 1 in Sioux Falls.

They dug in, partnering with a local daycare, school and volunteer groups to offer free child care and parent-child activities as well as food, snacks and children’s activities. Then they brought in experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the local Vet Center and the Veterans Business Outreach Center to lead wellness classes such as art and writing therapy, yoga and entrepreneurship. Additionally, keynote speaker Laurie Walsh, a local Marine veteran and news personality, spoke about the importance of women veterans and their stories, and a host of exhibitors were on hand to discuss free resources available for attendees and their families.

Event attendee Tamara Panning, who served in the Army National Guard, said, “I like the fact that kids were invited and I was able to bring my daughter. I have four kids, and they do like to be included.

“I’m busy with my own family life and working, but I got to meet some other women veterans today,” she added.“In fact, in talking to a group of ladies, we discovered we probably did cross paths 30 years ago in the military, so it was good to have a chance to connect.”

Other attendees, spanning multiple generations of service, connected with more than just resources and each other; for many, it was a first introduction to DAV Benefit Advocate Owen Richards, from the service office in Sioux Falls, who was on hand.

“This event led a number of veterans to contact Owen after the fact, discuss and file brand new claims,” said National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “These kinds of events, especially where veterans feel welcome and safe, can be the turning point where they finally become ready to talk about what happened in service.”

The retreat featured a number of wellness sessions—including yoga, art and writing therapy—and local resource vendors for women veterans and parents.

Hubers—who deployed to Iraq in 2003 and served in multiple humanitarian missions—is now the mother of four and a service officer for the Department of South Dakota.

“There is a sense of community that we can’t find anywhere else,” said Hubers. “We can’t find it with other women who didn’t serve. We can’t necessarily find it with our moms or our sisters. We can only find it with each other.”

As a mom, Hubers said, there is no shortage of barriers to getting involved in the veteran community. But she and her fellow DAV members are working to change that.

“I’ve brought my kids to so many DAV meetings, and everybody embraces them and is happy to have them there,” said Hubers. “Now if we can each bring a woman veteran in, they will bring someone else in, and so on and so on. Once you have that connection back, it’s pretty awesome.”

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