Female Veterans Share Experiences at New Women’s Center at VA Hospital

11/12/12 7:50AM By Charlotte Albright
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VPR/Charlotte Albright
Juanita Paynter, Kathleen Martin-Bonhaus, and Theresa Hoisington, veterans, reminisce about military service. All three now work or volunteer at the new Comprehensive Care Center for Women at the VA Hospital in White River Junction.

On Veterans Day, Americans thank all soldiers, sailors and marines for their service and sacrifices.

But for women, serving in the armed forces can present some unusual challenges.

Three veterans recently got together to share some stories at the new Comprehensive Care Center for Women at the VA Hospital in White River Junction. They dragged chairs from a huge conference table and sat close but nervously together in a circle in a corner of the room.

All three first came into the VA hospital as patients. One has returned to the new center as a volunteer, and the other two now hold staff jobs there. They are all proud of their military service.

Yet they all say their view of the military is a little different than what we typically hear on Veterans Day.

That's because in the male-dominated institution of the military, they all experienced harassment or worse while serving their country simply because they're women.

Theresa Hoisington was born in a military hospital. The family moved from base to base. 

She enlisted in the Army, and ended up in Korea, helping to set up communications systems. Hoisington's experience wasn't as traumatic as her colleagues', but she did have to deal with issues from Korean soldiers that her male counterparts didn't.

"There was absolutely no respect for me or how I went about things and we had an incident which changed that and they gained respect for me, but it wasn't something I could just walk in with, where the other individuals could walk in with it," Hoisington recalled.

Juanita Paynter told a more chilling story about physical abuse while working as a communications specialist, laying cable and also doing clerical work.

"I won't get into the whole details but I was raped and molested and left for almost dead while in the military," she revealed. "And that has really made a real impact on my life now."

Paynter said she first showed up as a patient at the VA against her wishes, when a friend could see that she was having, in her words, "a severe mental breakdown."

While she says she is strong and resilient today, it has left lasting scars.

"That's why I am saying this, because I want others to know out there who have had issues, had trials, traumas, tribulations, we are here, we will support you, we will be there  as a sisterhood to welcome you in," Paynter said, as the other two women nodded.

Paynter is a medical assistant at the VA, and chairs the women's center task force. The task force also includes Kathleen Martin-Bonhaus, a VA volunteer who served in the Coast Guard.

"And the first time I was out for four days and we brought in three fishermen, and I knew that's what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do it for the rest of my life as long as I lived," Martin-Bonhaus recalled.

But she left the Coast Guard she loved.

"And that was at a time when women still had a difficult time; there was a lot of sexual harrassment, sexual assault. I was the only woman at my station.  I wanted to be transferred. They did not want to me to transfer. Now women are never left at stations alone, that's part of things that have changed, which is very good," she added.

Now these women and others like them are trying to change the Veterans Administration as well, and they want to offer more than medical care in White River Junction. They want to start discussion groups, sports teams, and other activities that will help them recover from some of the bad times, and celebrate  the good ones.

And if they were called up again, would they reach for their uniforms?

Paynter's answer speaks for them all.

"I would be back there in heartbeat. Call me, I'd do anything, I'd be nursing the sick, anything that needed to be done, I'd be supporting our country," she said through tears.

They're all still supporting the country in one or another. And Hoisington still wears the uniform. She serves in the Vermont National Guard.  

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