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6 Pitt women veterans reflect on their time in the armed forces

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  • School of Nursing
  • School of Social Work

Before the mid 20th century, women could only serve in the United States armed forces in limited capacities and during wartime. When President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law on June 12, 1948, that all changed.

The legislation acknowledged women as essential to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and stipulated that they could serve permanently in the regular armed forces. To mark the momentous anniversary, some states have begun celebrating Women Veterans Day on June 12.

Pitt, of course, has its own population of female veterans comprising approximately 160 of the more than 420 veterans registered on the Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Pittsburgh campuses. Pitt’s Office of Veterans Services is a vital resource for these vets, connecting them and their families to academic and social resources as well as veterans benefits and financial aid.

In honor of the anniversary of this access for women, Pittwire interviewed six impressive vets on the Pittsburgh campus who are pushing for representation and support in the armed service and beyond. Of particular distinction: Laurel Norton, a vet who volunteered to help Ukrainian refugees.

Laurel Norton: helping out around the world

As Laurel Norton sat in her Squirrel Hill apartment working on algebra homework, a news notification flashed across her cell phone about the horrors unfolding in Ukraine. The Marine Corps veteran and first-year justice administration major felt called to act.

“I thought, ‘I’m crying over a math problem, and people are dying and being forced to leave their homes; I have to do something,’” said Norton. A few weeks later, she was visiting family in her native South Park, Pennsylvania, where a conversation with her sister steered her toward volunteering in the war-torn country.

She booked a flight and, two days after finals, arrived in Poland as an aid for LoveBristol, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit that partners with agencies to help people in need. Their Ukraine initiative collaborates with churches and charities on both sides of the Poland-Ukraine border and places volunteers to connect refugees with UK sponsors and distribute resources. 

Using her personal computer and phone, Norton spent eight days helping nearly 800 people who arrived by train or bus at a repurposed Tesco supermarket that served as a registration station. Folding tables filled every square foot of open space, extension cords ran across the floor like untamed vines, flags from the sponsoring countries hung over the stations to guide refugees.

“It was almost overwhelming because there were so many people, and the train continuously brought more,” said Norton. People of all ages sought refuge, but most were women and children. Specific faces are etched in her memory: A 17-year-old whose dad behind stayed to fight and whose mom refused to leave, an older woman who was missing both legs.

 “I don’t know if that happened in the war or if she was born that way, but seeing her trying to get around was heartbreaking,” said Norton. “It was hard enough to walk; everything was so clustered. She was alone, like most other older adults.”

Norton met other American volunteers, too, including a Pitt alum working as an interpreter for Ireland.

“The University of Pittsburgh had other representation, which was the craziest, coolest thing,” she said.

Norton was not born into a military family, and with no ROTC program in her hometown, she was introduced to the armed forces at age 15 through blockbuster hits like “Saving Private Ryan.” Hoping to explore competitive boxing and avoid school loan debt, she enlisted.

“I saw the different job opportunities, benefits and the brotherhood the military offered; I wanted that sisterhood equivalent,” she said.

On Aug. 21, 2017, the first-time flyer boarded a plane to South Carolina for boot camp and, from the airport, joined a bus full of men and one woman to Parris Island.

“As we’re doing drills at 3 a.m. and being screamed at this first night, I felt regret,” said Norton. During training, she also experienced hardships specific to military women.

“We were outnumbered from the beginning,” she said of the near 4:1 ratio of men to women. “It’s not vocalized much, but as women in the Marine Corps, there’s often this feeling that you always have to push harder to prove you’re worthy of being there.”

Eventually, there was a silver lining. She successfully moved on to combat school, then job school in Missouri to train to be a motor transport operator. There she made friends who she still considers family to this day.

“I met this group of amazing people, and we got so lucky to all get sent to the same unit in Hawaii.”

Four years on the Pacific Plate taught Norton to overcome her shyness and embrace nature and her chosen family. But in 2021, she was eager to pursue a degree and, having seen her blood relatives just three times since enlisting, be closer to home. Pitt provided the perfect solution.

The rising sophomore is set on joining the FBI and leading a crime scene investigation unit.

“I still really want to help people, even those no longer here.”

A favorite aspect of her college experience has been the services and support offered by the University’s Office of Veterans Services and its first female director, Aryanna Hunter. The camaraderie in Pitt’s new Pitt Vet Women’s Corps group stands in stark contrast to the stares and questions she said women receive from male veterans when entering the VA or trying to park in veteran-reserved spots at functions.

“Coming back to civilian life is a culture shock,” said Norton, “But Aryanna and the University group are so welcoming. I feel amazing here and want to find other women and bring them in because they understand what we deal with. We want to be represented more.”

To her, the group is a sign that things are improving.

“As I was leaving the Marine Corps, I noticed a shift starting and that more women were joining,” she said. “I love to see it. If you would’ve told me five years ago, ‘You’re going to another country by yourself, to show up and see what happens,’ I would’ve been like, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ I broke out of my shell and wouldn’t have without the military. Now I know there’s a whole world out there, and I’m going to go see what it has to offer.”

Christie Hay: advocating for military moms

Unable to afford college and wanting to escape the monotony of working three jobs, 18-year-old Hay made a call from her pizza shop gig to the local Ashland, Pennsylvania, Navy office on Christmas Eve of 1994. She’d been enticed to join by a coworker’s brother who’d stopped in and regaled them with tales of his Navy travels.

Despite graduating top of her class, Hay didn’t get first pick from the Navy job listings as is customary because there were quotas for women. Rather than going to Italy as she’d planned, she got to pick from these two ships in Virginia and Michigan. 

She left the Navy in 1998 after giving birth to twins because of limited support for new mothers.

“They slated me to stay on the shore billet for another year and then return to my ship, but when I was returning from maternity leave, the senior chief who signed my paperwork had retired. His replacement decided against it. So, when my kids would have been five months old, I would have gone back on my ship and out to sea for six months. They were five weeks old; I was nursing them and couldn’t imagine leaving. It was sad because I wanted to stay in but was made to choose.”

After the military, Hay’s family moved to Pittsburgh for an opportunity for her husband. She enrolled in community college, eventually transferring to Pitt in 2006. Hay received a teaching certification here through the School of Education in 2007 while working as a temp in the Swanson School of Engineering before becoming a graduate student administrator in the Department of Chemistry. She received her master’s in 2021 and is currently working toward her doctorate in education.

Aryanna Hunter: fighting military sexual trauma

Hunter is an Iraq War veteran who joined the U.S. Army at age 18, just two months after 9/11. Born and raised in Beaverton, Oregon, she grew up in extreme poverty within a community that was quick to lend a helping hand. This experience inspired her to help her nation by enlisting. 

Before joining the Office of Veterans Services (OVS) team in June 2019 as director, Hunter founded a nonprofit and worked as an IT project manager. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in community engagement at Point Park University to use research and practical knowledge to assess and better strengthen the area’s veteran community and destigmatize conversations about the epidemic of military sexual trauma (MST), which ranges from harassment to assault. 

“A lot of women choose not to disclose things that happen to them in the military, and sexual trauma runs rampant in every branch. I have had my own experience of MST so I work tirelessly both in this role and outside of my role here at Pitt to advocate for survivors.”

On being the first female director of OVS: “I come from a community engagement perspective. How can we bring our veterans together, and how can they be the ones to help determine what programs best support them while they’re here? I’ve held human-centered design sessions with our student veterans to learn more about what inspires them on campus and to create programs that support those desires. What I recognized was that our veterans aren’t just our students here. We’ve got staff and faculty who are veterans. We have our veteran alumni and we have dependents of veterans all here on this campus. I want them to feel connected and part of a community together.”

Kameron Langston: bringing women veterans together

Langston is an active staff sergeant in the 171st Security Forces Air Force National Guard, born in Grafton, West Virginia. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a police officer but also held a fascination for the military, despite being told it was for boys.

After trying college, she took her chances and joined the “boys club” for what she described as a last-ditch effort to do something better with her life.

“I told my dad, a U.S. Marine, that I wanted to be in the Army or Marines because if I’m going to join, I will do it big. He jokingly said, ‘You’re too smart for all that; go to the Air Force. They’ll treat you good.’ For once in my life, I took his advice.”

Langston was deployed to Kuwait in 2018, where she drove a security escort team, transporting up to 400 people at a time across the country. She also trained as a member of the high-risk response team and completed evasion conduct after capture training. 

Today, she’s a program coordinator for OVS.

On coming to Pitt: “In 2021, I moved to Pittsburgh. I was struggling to find work and connected with a few veterans groups on Facebook to keep my options open. One day, I was scrolling through the Irreverent Warriors page and saw that fellow veteran and lead coordinator for Irreverent Warriors in Pittsburgh Kaycee Kennedy had posted the job from OVS. I applied, thinking it was a long shot in the dark, but I got a call almost the next day. 

“OVS has created a Women’s Corps specifically for women veterans to spend time together to allow them to share stories and experiences. OVS also works with the VA to ensure student women veterans are aware of the services offered by the VA. The military is still very male-dominated, which results in most veteran programs being male-dominated, so having two women veterans working in OVS to provide that unique support to student women veterans is important.”

Anette Nance: helping future veterans

Nance joined the Marine Corps in 2011 to be a part of something bigger than herself. Her last station on active duty was the Marine Corps Reserve Center in North Versailles, Pennsylvania, in 2015. After honorably completing her contract in 2018, the Auburn, Georgia, native began pursuing her master’s in social work degree at Pitt in 2018.

As a student, she served as the president of the Student Veteran Organization, which enabled her to connect with veteran offices across the country and work closely with Hunter, who Nance said “provided many resources within the Pittsburgh area for women and encouraged women veterans with their endeavors.”

“As a Black woman, I did not see many women in leadership who looked like me. A challenge was how we as women were perceived if we did not perform as the men did. I started the Marine Corps as a single, but once my contract was over, I juggled other responsibilities such as being a wife, mother and student. I had challenges keeping up my supply as a nursing mom and advocating for myself strategically.

“It feels great to know Pitt and Pittsburgh have some fantastic leaders increasing military inclusivity and equity. In 10 to 20 years from now, the next generation of veterans will be benefiting from what is being done now. It is a cyclical process that has room for a lot of learning. I look forward to the good work.”

Karin Warner: investigating radiation exposure in soldiers

After 34 years in the United States Navy Nurse Corps, Warner said she could be considered fondly as a “salty sea dog.” During her time of service, she held numerous clinical and senior health care facilities and enterprise-wide leadership positions in facilities in the United States, Italy and Asia. She is also a past Navy director of the Federal Nurses Association.

After receiving her master’s in nursing in 1996, she was hand-selected for a health policy legislative fellowship to work for then U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter. The following year, she was detailed by the Department of Defense to serve as a professional staff nurse on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC), where Gulf War Hearings were being held and numerous issues regarding health care access for women veterans were being deliberatedShe worked on legislation to provide women veterans access to mammograms at the VA medical centers. 

As the only health care provider on the SVAC at the time, Warner also spent nearly a year researching atomic bomb testing and the resultant consequences of radiation exposure on soldiers. In preparing for the first-ever hearing on the effects of ionizing radiation on veterans, Warner investigated atomic bomb creation and the testing done in the Western Pacific and brought in experts from Chernobyl. Her work came to fruition on April 21, 1998, when the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on energy radiation became a matter of public record. This was a significant win for our nation’s atomic veterans as they were not permitted to speak of their work with the nuclear testing until the issue was declassified by the Secretary of Defense in 1996.  The hearing led to benefits being afforded veterans who were exposed to radiation during their time of service during that time.

In 2018, Warner joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing faculty and OVS. She applauds the latter for “celebrating, with open arms, the diversity of faculty and staff and others, like spouses, children of deceased, killed in action, military members who are still proud to be connected to the military community.”

She also launched a University of Pittsburgh chapter of Women in International Security  (WIIS-Pitt) to provide mentoring opportunities to young women like those she received early in her career. The idea won a $50,000 Chancellor’s Pitt Seed grant in 2019.

On how the military has changed and what can be improved to better experiences for women: “I have lived through a massive transformation, especially regarding women in the military. There are politics in any organization, and women must take other women under our wings and help each other. I looked to the women leaders globally in this organization (WIIS-Global) and thought that if they can do it, I can do it. They really inspired me. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve my country and to have been a part of the transformation of women leaders within the Navy and military medicine enterprise. I consider my role now as a professor at Pitt a continuation of my service — training the next generation of leaders.

 

— Kara Henderson