Three of the 90 women featured in the exhibit “In a Heartbeat” at Arlington National Cemetery’s Women in Military Service for America Memorial have Wisconsin National Guard connections.
Col. Joane Mathews, chief of staff for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, Staff Sgt. Sonia Buchanan with the Wisconsin Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion, and Carolyn Morgan, a former Wisconsin Air National Guard technical sergeant and former Service Member Support Division member, each have black-and-white photos and a short personal message on display at the exhibit, which runs through September 2015.
Morgan came across photojournalist Therese Hughes online when she worked as a women veteran outreach coordinator with the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. After an initial conversation, Morgan invited Hughes to visit Wisconsin.
“Women veterans’ stories, historically, haven’t been told,” Morgan said. “I thought it was time that we as Wisconsinite women veterans – more than 38,000 of us – needed to start getting our stories out there. When I met Therese I thought it was perfect. We have some remarkable women that live here in Wisconsin.”
Hughes first came to Wisconsin in 2011, conducting interviews at Vet Centers in Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay. On her return visit in 2012, Hughes interviewed women veterans at Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, including Mathews and Buchanan.
“I feel very honored and humbled,” Mathews said. “Hughes interviewed and took photos of 800 women and she chose me.”
Hughes, who spoke at the Nov. 7 exhibit opening, said her interaction with female veterans over the course of her career left her convinced that something needed to be done to honor them.
“It strengthened my belief that women’s stories should be told,” Hughes said. “My effort is to thank you for your service.”
Hughes said women veterans shared the same concerns – difficulty obtaining proper health care for service-related issues, and confronting disbelief regarding their service. She decided to take a leap of faith to start her project.
“I didn’t know if I could make a difference,” she admitted, “but what if I could?”
Hughes began interviewing women veterans as a way to understand what led her mother, Marcelle Swanson, a Milwaukee native, to join the Navy.
“She died when I was in my 20s – that wasn’t a question I had thought to ask,” Hughes said.
“I think it’s important to get the word out on the many accomplishments military women have done over the years,” Mathews said. “[Hughes] not only chose two other women veterans from Wisconsin, but also several other Guard females from around the country.”
Hughes said, despite having military parents, she knew little about the military. She was surprised to learn about the National Guard.
“You guys serve, and you go back to the community,” she said.
Hughes interviewed Buchanan after her return from a deployment to Afghanistan as a member of a Cultural Support Team.
“It is a true honor to be included in this project,” Buchanan said. “The caliber of women this project includes is amazing. I am surrounded by strong, intelligent, accomplished female veterans.”
Morgan was one of the first African-American women to join the 128th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1980, today known as the 115th Fighter Wing. She transferred to the active duty Air Force in 1985, and served in Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-91. She became a recruiter and returned to Wisconsin as a member of the 128th Air Control Squadron at Volk Field.
Mathews, a helicopter pilot who flew numerous sorties over northern Iraq’s no-fly zone during Operation Provide Comfort, met two World War II female veterans at the exhibit opening.
“Being able to speak with them and listen to their stories was so amazing,” she said. “They were both so alert, happy to talk with others, and proud of what they have accomplished.”
That was a large part of the rationale behind the exhibit, Hughes explained.
“I wanted to show young women that there is opportunity in doing something bigger than themselves,” Hughes said. “I did this so people can learn that you’re the woman next door or the small business owner.”
Mathews encouraged all service women to sign up in the Memorial Register, an interactive database with stories and pictures.
“It’s extremely important we as women veterans keep our stories alive,” Mathews said.
“This effort is important because it highlights the past accomplishments of female veterans who have helped pave the way so present and future females in the military can have opportunities that didn’t exist previously,” she said. “When these stories are read by other females, it can do nothing but motivate and encourage them to pursue their dreams, and remind them that nothing is impossible.”