VISTA, Calif. — Women are the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population — and the homeless veteran population.
Despite over 200 years of service, women say they’re often not recognized as veterans.
“My husband is in the Marine Corps," said Cynthia Taylor, an Army veteran. "His service always, always overshadows mine. No one ever assumes I’m the veteran.”
Taylor served nearly seven years as a combat swim instructor and logistics specialist in the Army.
“I was stationed in Germany and ran 38 different warehouses. We supported Africa and all throughout Europe with supplies, as far as helicopter supplies and food. We provided for humanitarian missions in Africa and things of that nature," said Taylor.
Skills she uses today in her work supporting women veterans. Taylor is a program support coordinator for the Foundation for Women Warriors, a 100-year-old nonprofit dedicated to honoring and empowering the women veteran community.
The nonprofit is campaigning to honor women veterans with a California license plate dedicated to their service. The effort began with a woman who served in the Air Force during Vietnam, who also designed the special decal.
Jodie Grenier, CEO of the foundation, shares a similar experience as Taylor after transitioning from the military.
“When I did tell people that I served in the Marine Corps or served in combat in Iraq, I was often met with, 'Well, you're so petite,' or 'Your hair is so long,'" Grenier.
Questions, she says, men often don’t receive.
"Even if we go to a veteran appointment together, veteran, VA appointment, they will ask for his ID. And he'll be like, she's the veteran, we're here for her," said Taylor. “I had a veteran license plate, they thought I was driving my husband’s car. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t the veteran.”
Despite her years of leadership in the Army, Taylor faced a new uphill battle entirely entering the civilian world.
“I had very little savings, I didn’t have a job, I ended up moving back with my parents because they don’t prepare you for any of that," said Taylor. "You don't know your benefits, what’s available to you because they don’t share it with you.”
And the sisterhood she once had all but disappeared.
"The men, you can only joke around so much, but they don't understand what you're going through," said Taylor. “You just feel so disconnected that you don't know how to make friends with regular people, and it was really isolating and lonely.”
Grenier believes a lack of recognition of women's service has contributed to issues seen today, including many women not accessing the benefits they've earned and a general misunderstanding in society about how many women serve in the military.
“Women have served this country long before they even had the right to vote. They served dating as far back as the Revolutionary War, where they disguised themselves as men to provide battle care. For years and years, women have participated in wars, and it wasn’t even until the 1970s that women that participated in WWI were recognized as veterans.”
Grenier says the isolation and barriers to health care are compounded for women, who have a higher rate of single parenting.
“You don’t serve with a ton of women, and when you transition, you certainly don't transition out into some sort of sisterhood," said Grenier.
According to the VA, 18 states or territories currently offer women veterans license plates.
To make the women veteran license plate available to all California women veterans through the DMV, the foundation must first collect a minimum of 50 paid applications for the license plate with a special decal.
“This is not an initiative to say women veterans need their own thing," said Grenier. "But until we get there until society realizes that women are veterans as well, this is just another way that we can honor the service of these women.”
“Having something that symbolizes the woman as the veteran really speaks volumes and honors her service, that she is the one that made the sacrifice," said Taylor. “I think as a community we owe it to that individual to make sure they don't become homeless, that they are offered the same chances as their male counterparts.”
More than symbolic, they hope it will connect women.
"I really look forward to the day when I can honk my horn and wave and say, 'Thank you for your service,' and know that it’s a woman in the vehicle.”
The foundation is also collecting new and unused children’s toys, clothes, and baby items for women veterans, hoping to support 100 veteran families this holiday season.