Hear me roar: Women veterans honored at VA hospital

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COLUMBIA - As Women's History Month continues, the Harry S. Truman VA Hospital is doing its part to honor the accomplishments of women veterans in Missouri. In an event Friday afternoon, the history of women in service was front and center.

"Today we honor our women veterans during Women's History Month. It's an opportunity for us to take time to listen to their stories and for them to understand the health benefits that they're eligible for," said Cindy Stivers, women veteran program manager.  

Community members and VA hospital staff all came out to hear the stories of women who've served at some point during their life. Attendees got to hear about the good, the bad and everything in between for women veterans, young and old.

"I was in the army. I was a mail clerk. I did that from the end of '67 until the end of '68," said Adrienne Errickson, who enlisted during the Vietnam War. 

Errickson has mostly fond memories of her time serving.

"It was great," she said. "I didn't mind no guns 'cause I'm afraid of guns but you meet people from the fifty states, people you never thought you'd be friends with. They had similar likes as you did. We liked to march. We marched everyday we loved it."

Now retired, Errickson volunteers for causes related to veterans affairs. Friday's event was a chance for her to meet women, many of whom have stories like hers. 

"This year there was mostly VA people," Errickson said. "I met a Marine. Just everybody's here. They're all coming for the companionship, being a part of an organization where we all have similar things. We might not be able to talk to Jane Doe, but we can talk to the military people so it's fun."

For Stivers, who is also a veteran herself, the annual event always reminds her of her own service.

"I served in the Marine Corps from 1990 to 1994," Stivers said. "I'm actually from rural Missouri. Macon, Missouri. As I exited the military, I came back to Missouri. I  used a lot of my benefits from my G.I. Bill to get my masters degree."

Decades after her own service, Stivers says more can be done for these veterans. 

"A lot of us live in a rural area so the communication to the rural veterans is not as easy as it is in Columbia or St. Louis about the resources that we have here," Stivers said. "So just getting the information out there 'cause when we go back to that rural area we go back to being a mother or a wife and sometimes we put that uniform behind us."

Jean Handy-Hamilton, who spoke at the event, recounted some of the struggles she remembers from her time serving. 

"It was hard. In basic training they make you do things that you've never done before in your life. But there was also push-back from men. In the very beginning, male push-back, in the late eighties there was push-back. But I pushed through and a lot of women pushed through and it made the time rewarding. Because if you show them you can do the job and change one person's mindset. It's worth that."

Since she enlisted, Errickson said many things have changed. However, she says her time in the military has remained a bright spot in her life. 

"When I enlisted it didn't really mean anything. When I got through with basic, it was just the pride that that was my flag. I took it personally. 'This is my army. My military. My country,' and I just love it. I love my country. I loved serving."

Handy-Hamilton believes that things have come a long way since women were first allowed to enlist in the military, but there's still room for improvement.

"Women, they started in the nineties letting them do some special combat missions," she said. "Now there's women in special forces. There's women generals. Women are serving and the opportunities that the military has for women are limitless and they're pushing for more. Women are over fifty percent of the population. We shouldn't be just seventeen percent of the military."

Editor's Note: a previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Cindy Stivers' name and title. These errors have been corrected.