BELFAST, Maine — When Winterville resident Sheri Drake joined the Air Force in 1981, she was told by her male superiors that “they’ve come a long way” in making women equal to the men with whom they served.
“But they hadn’t,” Drake said Saturday at a Maine Women Veterans event, hosted by Maine American Legion Women’s Advisory Committee and other veteran groups at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center.
She said when she served, “you had to be one of the guys … to be a part of the team.”
It’s different for her daughter, Staff Sgt. Justine Drake of Old Town, who serves with the 101st Civil Engineer Squadron based in Bangor and just graduated from the University of Maine in Orono with a degree in civil engineering.
“It’s pretty awesome and rewarding, and I work with a great group of people,” Justine Drake said. “It’s awesome to see other women in the engineering field, to see them swinging hammers [and] in the other fields, [such as] navigation as pilots. It’s really amazing to see.”
While positive strides have been made, Adria Horn, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, said one of the reasons she was selected to lead the bureau is that “our state acknowledged that [women] were not getting the services” entitled through service.
Horn, who has five deployments under her belt and is a mother of two, said women veterans of today have to lead the way for women veterans of tomorrow.
She encouraged the women veterans to enroll with Veterans Affairs and to let officials know when there are problems with the system, which she herself has done.
“We’re not part of the solution if we’re avoiding the problem,” Horn said.
Later, Horn said, “I want you to enroll in the VA for your daughters. We need to do this and we need to change this now.”
She also suggest that the women get involved with veterans social groups such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Disabled Veterans of America, who all had tables at the gathering. Embrace A Vet, the CareerCenter, Women Veterans Health Care, Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin also were in attendance.
Adjutant Tamera Howard-Doliber of Belfast’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post 3018 said she wouldn’t know what to do with herself if she didn’t have the VFW.
“It gives me a sense of pride,” Howard-Doliber, who served 20 years in the U.S. Army and deployed three times, said before the event started. “When you get out, you feel like you’re lost. You’re almost empty. As a member you feel like you’re still doing something important and you’re giving back.”
Sheri Drake agrees. She is now the commander of the American Legion post in Eagle Lake and hopes one day her daughter will join.
“We have captains and colonels and we’re all equals when you’re a veteran,” she said.
The women at the gathering were treated to a lunch, manicures, haircuts, and foot or back massages all donated by local companies, said organizer and Navy veteran Joy Asuncion, who is an Honor Flight Maine board member.
At the end of her keynote, Horn mentioned that the next generation of women veterans will live under new rules for combat since the Department of Defense officially lifted all gender-based restrictions on military service in January. One member of the Maine veterans group announced that her cousin was one of the first women to be selected for combat training from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and “hopes to be the first female tank commander.”
That news drew a loud round of applause from her fellow veterans.