Women Veterans — ‘Sisters Under the Skin’ — Share Experiences During VA Gatherings

  • Tish Hutchins, of Charlestown, right, greets fellow Air Force Veteran Joan Philbrook, of Charlestown, left, during a monthly social hour at the White River Junction, Vt., VA Medical Center Women's Comprehensive Care Center Thursday, February 2, 2017. "I think the biggest thing with this group is that we miss the camaraderie, because when we got out of the military we all went our separate ways," said Hutchins. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Women veterans gather for a monthly social hour at the VA Medical Center Women's Comprehensive Care Center in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, February 2, 2017. From left, are Navy veteran Rachel Ardin, of North Hartland, social work intern Alejandra St. Germaine, of South Strafford, Air Force veteran Freda Washburn, of Canaan, Marine Corps veteran Judith Pearo, of Swanzey, N.H., and Women Veterans Program Manager Carey Russ. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Carey Russ, Women Veterans Program Manager, middle, hugs Gioia Grasso Cattabriga, of West Lebanon, left, as Freda Washburn, of Canaan, right, looks on during a monthly women veterans social hour at the White River Junction, Vt., VA Medical Center Women's Comprehensive Care Center Thursday, February 2, 2017. The hour-long coffee and tea gathering started just over a year ago at the urging of women who are patients and volunteers at the medical center. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2017

Hartford — When Gail Fancher recently met Tish Hutchins, their conversation naturally turned to one thing they had in common: military service. In fact, both had served in the Air Force, albeit during different eras — Fancher from 1984 to 2016, and Hutchins from 1950 to 1972.

“I understand you are Air Force, too,” Fancher, a Hartland resident, said by way of introduction, asking what type of work Hutchins did in the service.

Hutchins, a Charlestown resident, said she was a computer analyst. She then asked Fancher if she had served as a nurse.

“I went in as a nurse and went to medical school to become a doctor,” she said.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” Hutchins told her.

But Fancher was quick to deflect the compliment and send it back in the direction of Hutchins, thanking her for breaking barriers for women.

The Air Force still had a long way to go when Fancher entered in the mid-’80s — she recalls having to “wear a skirt and have a drink in my hand at the club” — but she was appreciative of how much groundbreaking had been done by military women such as Hutchins who had preceded her.

“These ladies … can never know what they have done,” Fancher said.

The meeting was hardly accidental. Fancher and Hutchins became acquainted at one of the monthly social gatherings for women veterans at the White River Junction VA Medical Center.

Women veterans are anything but rare. About 10 percent of American veterans are women, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. New Hampshire is home to almost 9,000 women veterans, while Vermont has about 3,300.

Still, finding one another isn’t easy. But many women veterans find it fulfilling, not only because of the large gap between civilians and people who have served in the military, but the additional distance between women veterans and their male counterparts.

“I don’t think we share a lot in civilian life, because a lot of people don’t really understand women going into the service … why we go into a basically male-dominated area,” said Suzanne Silk, an Army veteran from South Burlington.

“It’s nice to connect with other women,” said Silk, who attended the February tea and coffee social for women veterans.

The get-togethers were prompted by Raquel “Rachel” Ardin and her wife, Lynda DeForge, who both served in the Navy. The North Hartland couple had attended veterans’ socials at the VA, but the gatherings attract mostly men.

There aren’t very many places for military women to meet one another, said Ardin, who fashions miniature American flags from beads and safety pins, and loves to give them out. Just over a year ago, she and DeForge talked with Carey Russ, the medical center’s women veterans program manager. Within a month or two, the women’s social was born. They’re held the first Thursday of each month, from 10 to 11 a.m. in the Women’s Comprehensive Care Center, where more than 700 veterans receive their health care.

The medical center has also begun sponsoring writing and book groups for women veterans. In the two years that she’s been program manager, Russ has discovered that such events are a big draw.

Women veterans “really flock to programs that are designed just for them,” she said.

In addition to sparking new friendships, the coffee hours have also offered an opportunity for her to share new programming with veterans and provide them an opportunity to ask general questions about women’s health, Russ said. And the medical center’s director, Al Montoya, usually stops in to greet the women, “which they love.”

Hutchins was greeted by those who know her with hugs at this month’s get-together. She’d had back surgery months earlier and been unable to make it to the event.

“We’re glad to see you,” Russ said. “It’s been a long stretch,”

“It’s still stretching,” quipped Hutchins, who said she’d missed the camaraderie. “You don’t have that in the civilian community.”

As they visited, the dozen or so women snacked on oranges, bagels and apple scones. Many wore Ardin’s pins. “I wanted to come and meet the people I totally respect,” said Fancher, who retired from the Air Force in September and now works part time at Global Rescue in Lebanon.

At times, the conversations took on a heavy tone. One woman advised another about resources available for victims of military sexual trauma. Several women described incidents when they had been overlooked as veterans, due to their gender. Gioia Grasso Cattabriga and her husband were fueling up at a local gas station when a passerby spotted Cattabriga’s veteran license plates. The woman walked up to Dick Cattabriga, who is not a veteran, shook his hand and thanked him for his service.

“Thank my wife,” he said.

“That is so very common,” said Cattabriga, an Army veteran who lives in West Lebanon.

Ardin said misinformation persists even among veterans. “A lot of women don’t know they are eligible to come to the VA clinic, and that you don’t have to be disabled.”

For Cattabriga, the monthly socials help fill the vacuum created by two societal trends: waning participation in social organizations and a tendency for people to live far from their extended families.

“There’s a comfort, I think, in sharing memories,” said Cattabriga, who recalled an event for women veterans she’d attended decades ago. She’d written about it afterward, so she’d remember the moment.

There were women in silk dresses, women in jeans and boots, women in blazers and slacks, she wrote, “but we all shared an experience that made us sisters under the skin.”

It’s the same feeling she gets today.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.