Women veterans gather to swap stories, gain experience

Air Force veteran Liz Skilbeck recently got a new license plate for her vehicle that identifies it as being driven by a female veteran. Before that, the license plate just identified it as being driven by a veteran, causing people to thank her husband for his service.

"It was `Thanks for your support. What did your husband do?' And my husband didn't," Skilbeck said.

Skilbeck is one of 50 female veterans coming together this weekend in a conference put together by The Mission Continues, an organization that connects veterans with public service projects. The conference aims to bring together the women -- all volunteers with The Mission Continues -- to share their unique experiences, inspire them with some strong role models and help them learn new skills.

"I think no matter where we are, no matter what battles we've overcome it's just good to be around strong women," Skilbeck said.

The Mission Continues has been around since 2007, but this is the first time they've had an event just for women, said Laura L'Esperance, from the organization. She said they decided to do a women-specific conference after doing a study of their programs and noticing that while women make up about 15 percent of active duty troops, they made up roughly double that share of some of the organization's programs.

But in a society that often equates the military with men, she said women vets often feel invisible when they leave the service. Hopefully through this conference the women will gain a new network and new skills to prepare them for whatever challenges they face next, she said.

"Men and women join the military for the same reason," she said. "But culturally their experiences in the military and after service are very different."

The women come from all over the country and a range of ages, although most are post-9/11 veterans. Skilbeck joined the Air Force in early 2001 and specialized in how to dispose of explosive ordnance. She left the service in March 2005 after multiple surgeries made it impossible to continue. Skilbeck said she struggled after leaving the Air Force. Working with The Mission Continues has given her a chance to contribute to society while working alongside veterans who understand what she's been through: "That's something I really missed."

The conference comes at a time of immense change for women in the military. The Defense Department this year opened up all combat jobs to women. Some generals have raised the prospect of women registering for the draft. The defense department is also pushing family-friendly proposals such as doubling the fully paid maternity leave for female service members.

The conference will feature speakers like Michele Flournoy, co-founder of the Center for New America Security whose name has been mentioned as the possible first woman to head the Pentagon, and sisters Betsy Nunez and Emily Nunez Cavness who confounded a company to repurpose military waste into bags and purses.

Rachel Gutierrez, who joined the Army in 2000 and deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005, said she's looking forward to talking with one of the featured speakers, Brig. Gen. Helen Pratt, and connecting with other women. Like Skilbeck, she's run into multiple situations where she's not recognized as a veteran -- for example, going to a veterans' hospital and people assuming she's a caretaker for a male veteran.

"I think for a woman veteran that can become super alienating," she said. She's helped launch two platoons -- teams of volunteer veterans -- in the Phoenix area. "We are over 400 veterans strong and we are absolutely not male dominated."