She Served: Women Veterans Are Also a Big Part of Military City, USA

Air Force veteran Mary Tener Davidson Hall was part of the second class to graduate from the Basic Officer Military Course at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. She served as a supply officer at Komaki Air Base in Japan, among other roles and duty stations. She was featured last year on VA’s website as “Veteran of the Day,” but this photo is from the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Library’s Special Collection featuring the Women’s Overseas Service League.

San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city, is home to quite a few U.S. military veterans — more than one in 10 residents alive today in “Military City, USA” have served their country in various capacities, including combat, from World War II until today’s conflicts.

Women veterans make up about 14 percent of San Antonio’s veteran population, one of the highest in the country. Here’s where they are located, according to recent U.S. Census data. (Tableau map by Lily Casura.)

Women veterans are also here in abundance. Approximately 15,000 women veterans — almost 14 percent of San Antonio’s overall veteran population, one of the highest rates in the nation — live in San Antonio, according to recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. (That figure is even higher for Bexar County — where almost 24,000 women veterans make up just over 16 percent of the total veteran population.) Both percentages are higher than Texas overall, where just over one in ten veterans statewide is a woman veteran.

There are almost two million women veterans alive today, and they often find themselves left out when people are thinking about veterans, or thanking them for their service. (They’re also left out of the picture when talking about veteran homelessness, something I’ve written about extensively here.)

Panoramic photo of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Women’s Overseas Service League, at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC in July of 1940. The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) has an extensive collection of WOSL papers, photos and memorabilia, as part of their Special Collections.

There’s some history to that as well: For decades, women who served were often told they were “not veterans,” or “not eligible” for VA services. (The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “VA,” serves most but not all veterans.) Strange but true: When I did my research into women veterans and homelessness after military service, I had to learn to ask women veterans whether they “served in the U.S. military” — not if they were veterans — to capture their service more effectively.

A close-up of Bessie Goethel with the soon-to-be Fritzie the war dog, at home in San Antonio in the fall of 1942. Photo courtesy of UTSA Special Collections.

While we might think that women veterans’ service started in World War II, the University of Texas at San Antonio (“UTSA”) has proof that it goes back further than that. Their special library collection about the Women’s Overseas Service League (“WOSL”) demonstrates women’s service going back to World War I. Spend an afternoon with the collection — by appointment only — there are some fascinating oral histories, photographs, scrapbooks of newspaper articles, even the history of one famous “war dog,” Fritzie, and his local owner, Bessie Goethel, included there. (I wrote about the WOSL collection in the Rivard Report, here.)

L-R: Former Marine and author Tracy Crow signs a copy of the book she wrote with Navy veteran Jerri Bell, at the “On Point” writing workshop for women warriors in San Antonio in June, 2018. The cover of Crow and Bell’s book about women’s military stories is also pictured.

Authors — and women veterans themselves — Jerri Bell (Navy) and Tracy Crow (Marines) would tell you the history of women who served goes back longer than that. They wrote “It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan.”

(This past June, Crow came to San Antonio to lead a very well-received On Point Women Warriors Writing Workshop at San Antonio College. I was lucky enough to attend as an ally.)

“Every veteran has a story, but for too long the stories from women veterans have been discounted, dismissed, or relegated to little more than a footnote in history. And this is why I’m passionate about encouraging women to embrace, write, and share their stories. Until our book, Jerri and I didn’t even know on whose shoulders we’d been standing, despite our combined 30 years of military service. It’s time to embrace our her-story,” says Crow, who has led these workshops with other women veterans all over the country, and hopes to return to San Antonio for future sessions.

San Antonio is also home to some prominent recent women veterans, including these:

  • Bronze star recipient Air Force Col. (Retired) Lisa Carrington Firmin commanded an air base in Balad, Iraq — and is now Associate Provost for Veteran and Military Affairs at UTSA. A proud graduate of San Antonio public schools, when Col. Firmin retired from the Air Force she was its highest ranking Latina officer. At UTSA she has spearheaded various diversity and student excellence efforts, including creating the Top Scholar program and seeing the Air Force ROTC program become first in the nation.
  • Marine Corps Major General (Retired) Angie Salinas spent almost four decades in the Marines. She was the first woman to command a Marine Corps recruiting base — in San Diego — and the first Latina to join the Marine Corps’ general officer ranks, according to her bio. In San Antonio, she heads the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas as their CEO.
  • Marine Corps Captain (Retired) Queta Rodriguez, who grew up in 78207 and attended local schools, spent 20 years away in the Marine Corps — first as enlisted and then as an officer, an accomplishment so rare it has its own name, “Mustang.” After returning to her San Antonio roots, for the past five years she served until recently as the director of the Bexar County Veterans Service Office, and had previously campaigned to be the first woman elected to the Bexar County Commissioner’s Court, from Precinct 2.
  • Navy Command Master Chief (Retired) Octavia Harris served three decades in the Navy, including service in Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF). After retiring from the military she joined VA healthcare as a program manager at the San Diego Medical Center, leading a multidisciplinary patient care initiative aimed at improving the appearance and well-being of traumatically injured military men and women. She has recently been appointed to head the VA’s National Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. (You can learn more about that, here.)

Women veterans even have their own “meet-up” group in San Antonio, which is reachable here — with a presence on Facebook and Twitter as well.

But as Veterans Day observances fade and blend into the rest of the holidays we celebrate, I would leave you with one recommendation, be you civilian or veteran. One simple, purposeful way to raise the profile of women veterans overall — and in so doing help raise awareness of their service and any unique experiences and needs they have, during and after service — is to include them every time you mention veterans.

Something as simple as saying, “We have X number of veterans we serve, including Y number of women veterans” — figures which can be easily obtained using just the sources in this article — helps remind us all of the women veterans — Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and reservists — who also served. This Veterans Day, and from here on out, every time you mention “veterans,” be sure you’re intentionally including women veterans in the picture. They’ve earned that distinction.