Invariably, when Robbin Alex is out in public wearing something that identifies her as a military veteran, strangers will stop and thank her. Which seems nice.
Except they’re thanking her for her support — presumably of a military spouse. Not her service. No one ever just presumes the 58-year-old Papillion woman spent half her life serving her country, which she did in both the Army and Navy. This makes this retired Navy lieutenant commander see red. Minus the white and blue.
“It doesn’t matter if I wear a ‘veteran’ shirt. It’s ‘Oh, is your husband a veteran?’ ” she said. “I’m a veteran. I served 30 years. The look is, like, ‘You served 30 years?’ It’s almost like total shock. They don’t know what a veteran looks like.”
Her husband, a retired Navy commander, does not get the same treatment. When they are out together, people will thank him for his service.
In fairness to the assuming stranger, a U.S. military veteran is way more likely to be a man than a woman. Though women have been serving the military in some capacity from the Revolutionary War on, though their active-duty participation rate is at an all-time high, though military women are busting glass ceilings on land, on water and in the sky, the fact remains that most service members are men.
Of 1.3 million active-duty service members in August, 1.1 million of them were men. The share of active-duty women was 16.3 percent. So the military is not yet like medical school (49.2 percent female) or law school (51 percent female first-years in 2016). The military’s proportion of women is higher than in Fortune 500 CEO jobs (6.4 percent). But the nation’s armed forces overall are still more like Congress (19.6 percent female).
Yet in fairness to Robbin and to some 1.6 million female veterans, Veterans Day, which officially was Saturday, is their day, too.
Two of the country’s most identifiable veterans organizations — the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans — are now headed by female vets.
Denise Rohan, the American Legion’s first female commander, was elected to her one-year post in August. It was a full-circle moment for the 61-year-old grandmother whose very first invitation to the Legion came in the late 1970s, after her two-year, Vietnam-era Army service. The Legion rep who knocked on her door in small-town Wisconsin then asked her Army vet husband to join the Legion and asked Rohan to sign up for the women’s auxiliary.
“This was 30-some years ago, and I thought, well, fine,” said Rohan, who attended Veterans Day events in Washington, D.C., for a World War I memorial groundbreaking Thursday and in New York City for the Veterans Day parade there Saturday.
Now the same post in the same small town features Rohan’s picture, along with this printed admonition: Remember, women are veterans, too.
Sometimes even Rohan has been guilty of not taking the extra step of asking women, particularly older vets, if they had also served.
Some women, figuring their military roles were too insignificant, answer “no” to the question “Are you a vet?” But Rohan finds if she asks the same thing in a different way, like “Did you ever serve in uniform,” they’ll say “yes.”
Despite the military’s strides with gender, 27-year-old Holly Styskal of Lincoln felt she had to prove herself to her father, who wasn’t thrilled she was joining, to her male fellow unit members in the Nebraska National Guard and to a public that still reacts in shock that the Wahoo native and nursing student could be a combat vet.
She deployed last year to Iraq and served in Baghdad. She returned home in July. She said she has been recognized for her accomplishments in training exercises and leadership.
“I am very proud to wear the uniform,” she said. “But I always get weird looks. Or if I’m wearing a U.S. Army sweatshirt I got overseas, I hear ‘You have family in the Army?’ ”
Styskal sets the record straight and says: No. I am.
Kelli Ten Hulzen is proud of her two years in the Marines in the early 1990s and will enjoy some veterans’ specials: complimentary breakfast at Hy-Vee and lunch at Applebee’s.
“Because I can,” the Firth, Nebraska, resident explained. “Nobody (else) will acknowledge the fact I was ever in.”
Recognition isn’t as important to vet Bonnie Bessler of Lincoln, who served in the Nebraska National Guard for 26 years, including a combat deployment in Operation Desert Storm. She now works for a federal contractor helping vets. She’s a member of the American Legion, marched in her Plymouth, Nebraska, hometown parade this weekend and is proud of her service.
But she doesn’t like to bring attention to it. At ballgames, if they ask veterans to stand, she will. But she won’t salute during the national anthem, as some vets do. Nor will she wear veterans caps or other identifiable gear.
“It’s not that I’m not proud,” she said. “It’s one more thing that brings light to you. I just don’t have that need. I know what I did.”
Bessler said the military has come a long way for women since 1980, when she signed up out of high school and underwent a physical, which included her first pap smear. Conducted by a podiatrist (!). And even when she retired in 2006, medical workers at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Lincoln mistook her for a family member of a vet, not a vet. But she said VA medical care is far more specialized for women these days and that she knows her way around the system and how to advocate for what she needs.
As for Robbin Alex, a military career was somewhat accidental. Her dad was Navy, had served in Vietnam, and she swore she’d never enter. But one year after graduating from high school in Missouri, Robbin was signed up for the Army National Guard. Her father had invited a recruiter to their new Omaha home, then at 144th and Blondo. It was surrounded by cornfields and seemed like the boondocks to a restless Robbin, who wanted to see the world and saw the Army as her ticket to do just that.
She worked in various medical roles, becoming a nurse. She begged to go overseas for Desert Storm but had orders to stay stateside. She met a Navy man, Cmdr. Bill “Weez” Alex, she’d later marry and switched services to be with him. His final orders were to Offutt Air Force Base, and Robbin retired in 2007. Her husband retired in 2012.
Robbin is active in vets groups and on Saturday was planning to participate in a special walk for veterans. She’s captain of a local chapter of a Florida-based vets organization called Team RWB. And if she could re-up with the military, she’d “go back in a heartbeat.”
Her passion and dedication were obvious. Regardless, she gave her time, and I felt, during our interview, I owed her at least what she said she never gets.
“Thank you for your service,” I told her.
“It was my honor,” she said. “And my pleasure.”
Women have long served in the military, though in ever-changing roles.
From 1775 through Vietnam they were mostly behind-the-scenes players: nurses, laundresses, clerks and cooks. There were stories here and there of women who dressed as men and fought in combat, or they served as spies, telephone operators, code breakers and battlefield medics.
Then came 1967. When Congress lifted a cap, women’s roles grew, though maybe not as fast or as much as women wanted. By last year, the lifting of a long-standing ban on women in combat took effect. A ban on drafting women still holds.
Still, women flew helicopters in Grenada in 1983. They served in medevac units in Iraq in 1991. They were on the front lines in Iraq in 2005.
The first four-star female officer, an Army general, was promoted in 2008. The first woman to lead the U.S. Northern Command was named in 2016. The first female Marine to graduate from the Corps’ notoriously difficult Infantry Officer Course did so in September.