Members of The Villages’ Tri County Women Veterans Club stand united, hopeful, and diligent in their call for equal recognition.
Photos: Nicole Hamel
Sue Roper, a retired veteran with 21 years of service in the Navy Nurse Corps under her belt, is working towards changing people’s perception of women veterans, especially when it comes to recognizing and acknowledging how important their military roles really were.
And she’s not alone.
Standing right beside her are more than 200 other members from Lake, Sumter, and Marion counties (40-percent Army, 30-percent Navy and Airforce, 5-percent Marine Corps and one Coast Guard member) of the Tri County Women Veterans Club, she overseas as president.
“Some people may not be aware of how prominent women veterans are so it’s our responsibility to elevate, educate, and show them,” Sue says.
The club was originally founded in 1999 by Vivian Chiasson. Sue was elected president in 2017, and since then, her main mission has been to increase their visibility, since many people tend to automatically think of veterans as men.
“More often than not, when we go out into the community wearing a Navy shirt or an Air Force cap, people will come up to us and say, “So where did your husband serve?” Sue says, explaining that it’s happened to her numerous times, as it has to many others. “We want to educate people and enlighten them that ‘No, it’s not just our husbands, or men in general, but that many women proudly served too.”
Flo Hurlburt, a retired master sergeant who served a total of 27 years in the Airforce, says after moving to The Villages three years ago, joined the Veterans Memorial Park Club, along with the Tri County Women Veterans Club.
“Some of the older male veterans, they know we’re there, but they seem to ignore us, or fail to recognize us, but they are getting better,” Flo says. “Also, other people, they see us with a shirt or cap, and they say, ‘Oh your husband,” and although I understand that as a society, we kind of make assumptions like that, it’s time that changed.”
To raise awareness, the club gets involved in as many military-related community activities and helps other military-based organizations with as many events and efforts as possible, and they lobbied for a proclamation that Gov. Ron DeSantis passed earlier this year declaring June 12 as Women Veterans Day in Florida.
Then, in addition to their monthly Monday meetings, they have a weekly golf outing on Wednesdays that Sue says draws a lot of attention since the golfers all wear their white uniform shirts while on the course.
“People take notice and say, ‘Wow, women veterans, how cool,’” Sue says.
About a year-and-a-half ago, the group also started the area’s first all-woman color guard that is gaining traction, and members are busy raising money for an all-woman overnight Honor Flight trip planned for May 2022. Sue says 60 women vets, 60 women guardians and medical staff will be chartered to Washington for the trip’s usual stops, and to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, not usually included.
“We tend to see ourselves as undervalued, unrecognized and unappreciated, so we need to start being heard,” Sue says.
Carole Bruce, who served in the Marine Corps for 24 years — and who some may recognize from her appearance on the Price Is Right in 1989, wearing her dress blues and winning a car, a camera and $500 – retired as an E8 gunnery sergeant, before becoming a successful warrant officer.
Still, Carole says she faced numerous challenges when she first joined.
“I remember I was in my uniform in Philadelphia around 1976-77 and people were really rude and mean,” Carole says. “There were also some really macho men in the Marine Corps that believed women shouldn’t be there and treated us unfairly, but not many and it wasn’t just about recognition, but about just men being weird about not wanting women there.”
Carole says since then, she too, knows what it’s like being overlooked as a veteran, but values being a member of the club because it reminds her that although there are others in the same boat, they are all there to support one another.
“I think the camaraderie and the idea of getting women together is great. Who would have thought we’d have 100 women get together each month to celebrate the fact that we are women veterans, and that we did have an important part in our military history in each decade; in each war?” asks Carole. “It’s very important that we recognize each other’s accomplishments because it was kind of ground-breaking for many of these women. I came in after Vietnam, but some of these women were WWII.”
Sue says beyond that, the hope is to positively affect women still serving today, because, she adds: “If we don’t increase our visibility as women veterans, those currently serving are also going to be lost. They’re not going to be recognized or thanked for their service either.”
For more information about the Tri County Women Veterans Club, to donate or to join, visit the group’s Facebook page or call Sue at 757.576.9688.