The 6th Annual Florida Women Veterans Conference will be held Monday and Tuesday, June 10 and 11, at the University of West Florida, which is one of the nation’s top Military Friendly Schools. This year’s theme is “Women Veterans…We Are One of Many.”
Those attending will have a chance to network with fellow veterans and learn about job and education opportunities.
“From the very beginning, women veterans have worn many hats, Army berets and nurses’ caps, aviation helmets and Morse code head gear. The hats reflect the roles they played from nurses and radio operators to pilots and mechanics,” says a public service announcement honoring women veterans on the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs website. The organization is presenting the upcoming conference.
“I am a Air Force Veteran; I was an F-16 crew chief active duty and mental health technician in the Reserves for four more years,” said Lori Milkeris.
She’s now helping military veterans get the services and education they need to transition back to the civilian world as interim director of the UWF Military and Veterans Resource Center.
Additionally, she has been chosen as the conference’s keynote speaker.
“I think the main message would be empowerment to take control of the amenities and the strength that the female veterans have as well as the things that they may struggle with,” said Milkeris. “Knowing that the people in our office are capable of helping them because we’ve walked down that path and letting them know they’re not alone.”
For example, Milkeris knows first-hand the struggle women face trying to hold their own in a male-dominated military workplace.
“With, let’s just say some sexism; it’s a man’s world. I myself as a crew chief, being a mechanic on jets, I definitely saw some struggles,” she recalled of her time in the service. “So, instead of backing down to them, I made it my goal to be on the squadron jet. So, I made it so that I pushed even harder and tried to prove myself even more.”
Sometimes, sexism evolves into harassment. An estimated 1 in 4 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans in the VA healthcare system report experiencing what’s been termed “military sexual trauma” or MST.
This is a serious issue that also will be addressed at the Florida Women Veterans Conference by Vanessa Thomas. She’s State Women’s Veteran’s Coordinator and specializes in this area for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We try to give that women veteran and even men that go through this trauma their voice back,” said Thomas. “Most of the time it’s a matter of them not reporting it when they’re in the military and if they did report it when they were in the military, it’s completely swept under or been completely ignored.”
In 2017, some 12,000 U.S. Veterans filed claims seeking support for post-traumatic stress disorder related to MST. In Florida, Thomas has the job of giving those affected veterans the courage and information they need to file their own claims, sometimes long after they’ve separated from the service.
“We work with the VA for them to find the evidence, whether it be performance; there are markers or stresses that happened after the event happened while they were in the military, and that’s what I spent a lot of my time on is doing the research to see what is going on,” Thomas explained.
The conference is being held in different regions around the state, which has more than 153,000 female veterans. Thomas says it was started six years ago, because the Florida VA office found that many of the women exiting the military didn’t think they were considered veterans and were not tapping into the system for their benefits.
“You have to remember, a lot of the veterans are coming out of peacetime, you know, through the 80’s and mid 90’s and they didn’t think that they were veterans and some of them still don’t,” Thomas explained. “We have some women that they were in the military and their whole sense is that I was in the military and if I wasn’t treated well, why I going to go into the VA.”
The goal of the VA and the conference is to provide information that will help women veterans identify and access all their VA benefits, from education and healthcare, and to assist with any area of need for them to be successful.
“And it could be just finding out employment; where can I go find employment? Where, if I’m a veteran and I’m not getting the veteran’s preference, there’s somebody to talk to them about that,” said Thomas.
Of course, a major focus of the conference will be about job and educational opportunities in the state. And, if veterans want to college when they leave the military, but they’re not quite ready, no worries.
“I’m Rob Gregg. I am the National President of the National Association of Veterans Upward Bound and the local director for the Veterans Upward Bound at Pensacola State College,” said Gregg, identifying himself.
He will be one of the presenters at the conference, talking about the services offered by PSC’s Veterans Upward Bound program, which is one of just two in the state.
“It’s a program that provides assessments and enhancement of basic skills through counseling, mentoring, tutoring, and academic instruction in the core subject areas of math, reading and writing,” Gregg explained of VUB’s mission. “We see a lot of need for math tutoring from basic - all the way up through calculus.”
Once veterans have the educational tools they need, they can enroll locally at PSC, Northwest Florida State College and the University of West Florida, which is hosting the 2019 Women Veterans Conference.
UWF is the regional university in an area of the state that has a large military and veteran population, and for the tenth time, in 2018 the institution was named one of the nation’s top Military Friendly Schools.
For this summer semester, UWF has 380 male veterans enrolled, compared to 185 females. But, MVRC interim director Lori Milkeris says women veteran students are holding their own.
“I don’t think any female veteran’s GPA has ever dropped below a 3.21, which that’s not the norm for a lot of individuals,” she said. “And, I think that shows the resiliency and the need and want to just improve themselves to improve for their families or just for their own personal growth.”
The 6th Annual Florida Women Veterans Conference will be held from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. this Monday and Tuesday in the UWF Conference Center on the Pensacola Campus, 11000 University Parkway, Bldg. 22. Anyone is welcome to attend the conference. To register, find a link at floridavets.org.