A group of female veterans gathered in an event Feb. 11 namely titled “HERstory,” held in the A.J. Drexel Picture Gallery, to discuss their unique experiences in the United States military. The collection of speakers shared equally courageous narratives that proved they are nothing short of unstoppable in their respective careers.
The panel of women discussed a variety of topics ranging from motivations, challenges, opportunities and goals through their military experience. It included Drexel students Jessica Huber, a mechanical engineering student who served in the U.S Air Force for five years, and Olivia McDonald, a business student who served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. The panel also included U.S. Navy veteran and advisor to Drexel’s Veteran Association Jessica Wisniewski from the Office of Enrollment Management and Student Success; Erika Webster, a former Active Duty officer in the U.S. Army turned Founder and CEO of Dub Fitness in King of Prussia, an exclusive women-only gym; and Reilly Burrus, a part-time Maritime Enforcement Specialist and Active Duty Drill Instructor in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Maura “Mo” Gillen, a retired U.S. Army veteran who previously worked as a Professor of Military Science and headed the Army ROTC at Drexel, acted as the moderator of the event.
Through the hour-long discussion, the panelists spoke of their early years as a woman in a mostly male-dominated field. As they looked back on each of their experiences holistically, they reminisce over lifelong friendships that were made, personal revelations that unraveled and how their experiences ultimately gave them the tough skin that continues to carry them through the challenges they face. They collectively stated just how grateful they were for the military and the power it had in shaping them — not only as officers, but also as women who play crucial roles in the lives of the people around them.
Gillen began the panel discussion inquiring about the inspiration behind the women’s decisions to join the military. The panelists’ answers varied along the spectrums of job security, a foundation for a successful future and the opportunity to challenge oneself both physically and mentally. While several panelists noted that it took some time for their families to warm up to their ambitious decisions, they explained how their parents soon became proud supporters of their dreams.
The panelists showed that despite being immersed in a channel that encourages immense personal-growth, the environment of niche military sects are not always fond of women cohorts. On the topic of the many prejudices that women face in the military, the panelists had an array of encounters to share.
“While I was in the service, I had to deal with a lot of stereotyping. I’m only 5’1, and I weighed about 110 pounds when I first joined. You would get a double take when you’re a small female. Dealing with that was tough, but in the Marine Corps spirit you take that as a challenge to change people’s opinions,” McDonald said.
Wisniewski shared a similar response.
“[While] in Active Duty, I was working around a lot of men. As a mechanical engineer out of 75 in the department, about nine of us were women. In general, I think being a decisive, strong woman can rub people the wrong way — men and women. You just want to be taken seriously, you don’t want to be joked around with and punched on the shoulder, and sometimes that might come across in some people’s eyes, for lack of a better word, mean,” she explained.
Often, following time in active duty, adjusting back to civilian life can impose a set of new setbacks, the panelists explained. Fortunately, due to the social-engineering of daily life in the service, these women were able to utilize tactics learned from the “military mindset.”
The military mindset is essentially a mentality that is centered on consistent personal development, organization and maintaining a general positive outlook on life. Gillen asked the panelists how this remains with them today.
“I don’t take no for an answer anymore if I know something in my life is not the way it should be,” Burrus said. “The military mindset brought this into my personal life.”
Webster said that she has learned the value of collaboration, which is still vital in her life today.
“A lot of what I do is built on integrity, being authentic and having the discipline to do what is necessary without second guessing — making a decision and sticking by it. I [advocate] that there is no competition. It’s teamwork. It’s fostering an environment of togetherness,” Webster said.
Gillen also asked panelists if their military experience was what they expected. Some panelists said they were slightly let down in some ways, but for Burrus, it was even better than she ever anticipated.
She explained that she is happy to have over ten years of experience working as a federal law enforcement office even though she has no college degree. Her experiences have since opened up many doors for her to receive multiple job offers set up for her for when she gets out of the Coast Guard.
“The coast guard has exceeded my expectations,” she said.
After Gillen finished asking panelists questions, she opened up the floor to the audience.
One audience member, Webster’s husband, asked how the women perceived gender roles during their military experiences. Throughout the panel, several of the women alluded to taking on a motherly role on their teams, and he asked how they felt about this.
Huber explained that she didn’t mind being referred to as the group mom when they were not on duty; however, she said this was unacceptable during working hours.
“When you’re working, you’re on a mission. I just wanted to be an airman. It took them a minute to understand that I wanted to be just like everyone else. You have to work a lot harder to get the same amount of respect,” she said.
Burrus, on the other hand, enjoyed standing out as a woman and having an authoritative role fused with her intrinsic feminine nature.
“I love being a female drill instructor. The girls that come through look up to me. They say ‘I want to be her one day.’ I’ve worked hard to get to that point. I love the face that me being a female [drill instructor] puts that fear factor in some of the males that come through. They have no idea, they call me Medusa. They respect you so much more that you’re a female,” she said.
Webster also shared that she couldn’t let her gender get in the way, especially during certain assignments when she was in the company of convicted rapists, murderers and drug dealers.
“I couldn’t let the fact that I was a girl intimidate myself. We couldn’t just stand there and be pretty and bat our eyelashes. That’s why we excelled in PT, as there’s no other way to prove that you are tough,” she said.
As the night came to a close, the panelists also shared their advice for other young women who may be considering enlisting. Overall, they emphasized the importance that those interested should only join if they are truly certain of their decision.
“They’re your reasons and why you want to join. If you just want to put on a uniform or just go to school, that’s just not enough. Because you go through some really tough times and you’re alone,” McDonald advised.
Webster also stressed the significance of getting involved only for the right reasons.
Though panelists agreed on many questions throughout the night, Gillen reminded the audience that each panelist was unique.
“Her story is not a universal story,” Gillen said.
However, some female veterans in the audience found the relatability of the panel reassuring, like Candice Moore, an Air Force veteran now studying graphic design at Drexel.
“I felt really empowered,” she said. “I realized I’m not the only one who has these challenges.”