Along a brick wall in the radiology department hallway in Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center Building 1, sit the black-and-white portraits of 46 women veterans from the Oregon communities the Roseburg VA serves.

Most are VA employees from Roseburg, Eugene and North Bend. One is a World War II veteran who celebrated her 100th birthday in April. And one is part of a group dubbed the Lionesses — the first women to serve alongside U.S. Army combat troops on the front lines in Iraq.

The exhibit, called “I Am Not Invisible,” opened Wednesday. It is part of a nationwide effort to recognize women veterans. The idea was the brainchild of Portland State University Veterans Resource Center Director Felita Singleton and Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs Women Veterans Coordinator Elizabeth Estrabrooks.

It started with an exhibit of 20 portraits. The idea was picked up by Eugene Russell, the official photographer to the Secretary of the VA in Washington, D.C., and grew to include more than 1,000 woman veterans around the country.

Jessica Miller of Coos County was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and was assigned to be her company commander’s driver. But she was soon asked to take on a much more serious responsibility. Miller became the first of a group of Army women deployed with combat troops to handle their encounters with Iraqi women.

Iraqi women presented a particular challenge for what had been exclusively male combat units because their culture forbade them from even talking to men, let alone being searched by them. Violating those rules could mean death for the women, Miller said.

Enter the Lionesses, whose unique mission was little known until it became the subject of the 2008 PBS documentary “Lioness.”

Miller’s mission began with conducting searches the Iraqi women couldn’t accept from men and eventually deepened into intelligence gathering as those women began to see in the Lioness both someone they could trust and someone who showed them the possibility of a better life, Miller said.

Many of the women had been abandoned by their men and left desperate by the rules of their culture. Some had been treated worse than dogs, Miller said, and it was awful.

“These women were treated very badly in my opinion, and theirs, for the most part. They were in a really weird position because over there, they couldn’t pay taxes, they couldn’t buy food, they couldn’t go outside, they couldn’t do anything without the permission of a man. And in this case, all the men were gone, at least the ones we were looking for. So they were starving, they were unable to get the food they needed to feed their families,” she said.

Miller had been asked by her colonel to serve in the role, but it was a very off books request. Women weren’t allowed in combat.

“It was against the law. It was against the current U.S. policy at the time for women to be doing that,” she said.

Many of the Lionesses had been thrust into a role they weren’t really prepared to take on. They were assigned as cooks and clerks and mechanics. Miller felt she had an advantage because she had a really rough go of it in basic training, and that had toughened her up.

She had been hazed by the men in her unit. She was spit on, and the men ran circles around her as she ran to show her she was slower, she was the weaker link. She pushed her body so hard to catch up that she suffered bladder control issues. She vomited. She cried. But she caught up.

“One day my body changed. It’s like it finally caught up to that level of fitness and not only could I keep up with them but I could excel physically,” she said.

That’s when the men in her unit became her brothers.

They were eager to deploy to Iraq because they were all young and stupid, she said, herself included. Throughout her time there, life seemed surreal, like being in a movie.

“This was like living in Mad Max, you know what I mean? It was just so unreal. There were buildings on fire and people running around and driving vehicles into buildings and just my whole reality changed,” she said.

Shock and awe eventually turned to despair and sadness.

“As people, we were so cruel to each other in war,” she said.

After returning home, Miller faced an entirely different sort of challenge. When she talked about her war experience, no one believed her.

“Everyone thought I was a liar. Women didn’t serve on the front lines,” she said.

The Lioness documentary, though she wasn’t featured in it, helped validate her experience. Having her portrait on the wall at the Roseburg VA has helped, too, as has being given the chance to tell her story.

Veterans, including women, need to tell their stories, she said.

“It’s a calming feeling, and yeah, it’s just changed my life, really, because people believe me now. And it’s sort of something I think I can set on the table and walk away from. Validation is important. ... It sort of lets us move on,” she said.

Also featured in the “I Am Not Invisible” exhibit is a portrait of Marge Cook of Roseburg, who was 99 when her portrait was taken and is now 100. Cook sat in a chair in the Building 1 lobby and spoke to several people who stopped by to greet her.

Cook said she entered the Army after World War II broke out because she wanted to make her dad happy.

“He didn’t have a son and he said, ‘I feel really bad I don’t have a son,’ and I said, ‘Yes you do. I’m your son.’ I went down and enlisted in the service the next day,” Cook said.

She was the first woman to enlist in Allegan County, Michigan. She served as a secretary at Fort Benning, Georgia, and at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. She applied for overseas service twice but wasn’t allowed to go.

Most importantly, she made her dad happy.

Cook taught in a one-room schoolhouse when she completed her service. She said she was always thanked for her service, but never thought much about it one way or another.

“I did for my country what I thought I should do, and I’m glad I could do it. I think more young people should think about fighting for their country, and they should go into service for their country,” she said.

She also loves the VA and said veterans should realize they have a wonderful VA hospital.

Kristen Welker is one of the VA employees appearing in the exhibit. An operating room scheduler currently, she served in the Army from 1999 to 2003. She was stationed in Germany where she did flight scheduling and flight dispatching for Black Hawk helicopters.

She said it feels good to be honored with a portrait.

“For a long time I didn’t even really tell anybody I was a veteran. It’s not because people look down on female veterans. It’s just because most people are like, I don’t know, a lot of times people don’t believe that you’re a veteran,” she said.

She said she used to go to the Veterans Day parade wearing veteran gear and would be asked if her husband is a veteran.

“We get that a lot, a lot. But now there are events like this and more stuff that says female veteran on it, and that’s nice, that’s nice,” she said.

Evelyn Anderson is a Korean War-era Marine veteran who said lots of women have served in American wars through history.

“It’s really nice to see these folks honored. It’s wonderful,” she said.

Anderson was in supply and worked at Parris Island, South Carolina; Quantico, Virginia and Camp Pendleton, California, in 1954 and ’55. She served 19 years as a Veterans Service Officer at the VA.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat, but they don’t want little old ladies. The Marine Corps did so much more for me than I did for it,” she said.

Women Veteran Program Manager Taher Christensen said the Roseburg VA serves 2,615 women veteran patients and has 110 women veteran employees.

“We want to honor women veterans and their many contributions to the military and our country. We want to acknowledge the service that they have given to our country and the service that some of these women continue to give through their work as employees at the VA,” Christensen said.

The exhibit will be up at the VA until the end of the year.

Reporter Carisa Cegavske can be reached at ccegavske@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4213.

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Senior Reporter

Carisa Cegavske is the senior reporter for The News-Review. She can be reached at ccegavske@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4213. Follow her on Twitter @carisa_cegavske

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