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Women comprise a growing part of combat veterans in Western Pennsylvania, America

Deb Erdley
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Women have become a crucial part of United State’s all-volunteer military. Those close to them, however, fear the story of America’s military women too often goes untold.

And it’s a big story.

Today, women comprise nearly 15 percent of the nation’s active military and nearly 20 percent of the reserves and National Guard. More than 300,000 women are among the 2.8 million members of the military who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

Many now have returned to civilian life as veterans who may well form the foundation of America’s next “greatest generation.”

Among that new generation of veterans is Julia Slifko, a student in the University of Pittsburgh’s doctor of audiology program. At 36, she has nearly 14 years of active and reserve service in the Air Force.

A munitions technician who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Slifko witnessed the best and worst of military life. While she loved and respected the men she served with and says that respect was returned, she’s not sure her fellow female veterans get the recognition they have earned.

“Some of the meanest, baddest, most-amazing people I stood side by side with in combat were women,” the soft-spoken graduate student said.

Like many of her generation who served in the military, Slifko said the events of 9/11 inspired her to enlist. She joined the Air Force after completing a double major in French and international merchandising at the University of Akron.

“I’m grateful I joined. It made me a better person. I’ve met so many amazing people,” she said. “You leave your blood family, but you adopt your military family so quickly. When you deploy, you create bonds for life. … It makes you realize you’re not first and you’re not alone. You take care of others, and they take care of you.”

Slifko deployed to Qatar and Iraq in 2006. In 2011, she deployed to Afghanistan. Her career goals came into focus there.

“We were under attack by (rocket-propelled grenades) when I heard a boom and heard someone scream for help,” Slifko said. She ran out to find a soldier bleeding profusely from shrapnel wounds.

“I applied a tourniquet to try to stop the bleeding. Later, they told me I saved his life. They said there were bacteria on the shrapnel, and it would have gotten into his blood stream without the tourniquet,” Slifko said. “That was somebody’s brother, father, uncle that I saved. I knew then I wanted to do something to help people.”

Getting into Pitt’s highly rated audiology program and working with vets who have balance and hearing problems during clinical rotations at the VA hospital in Oakland have made the long hours and hard work all worthwhile.

If all goes according to plan, she will graduate in 2020 and hopes to work in a VA facility.

Breaking barriers

Maj. Kathy Silvia, a retired Army officer, was among the first class of women to graduate from West Point in 1980. She worries that stories like Slifko’s often get lost.

The role of women in the military has increased exponentially since 1972, when the United States went to an all-volunteer military force, Silvia said.

The former Cranberry resident lives near Chambersburg today. She left the region in 2003 when she deployed with the 812th Transportation Battalion to the Kuwait/Iraq combat zone. The outfit that included 1,200 truck driving soldiers traveled deadly desert roads to provide supplies and munitions to the combat forces into Iraq.

Men and women worked side by side in a volunteer force that has broken down barriers that once limited the participation of females.

“Women can now do any role they qualify for, any branch of service,” Silvia said.

But the civilian world rarely hears of their work.

“The women are invisible when they serve. You never read about them in the history books. They don’t toot their own horns,” Silvia said. “Women have always been resilient and have delivered when a job needs done. It was just that the public didn’t read about them or didn’t know.”

That’s why Silvia is devoting her retirement to telling the stories of today’s warrior women.

She is the Pennsylvania State Ambassador to WIMSA , Women in Military Service for America. The foundation supports ongoing work at the National Women’s Memorial, which is located at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery and honors the 3 million women who have defended America from the revolution to today.

It features oral histories of women who have served in the military as well as a special exhibit honoring each of the 161 servicewomen who have died serving their country since 9/11.

Silvia also has worked with Julie Hera DeStefano, the Gibsonia woman who spent months in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 interviewing women for the documentary “Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home.” Silvia was in Peters Township recently for a screening of the film.

Like Silvia, DeStefano worries that the real scope of women’s contributions sometimes gets lost in the focus on the extreme cases. Her nonprofit organization, Journey to Normal , grew out of the film and continues to gather and document the stories of women of war.

“Homelessness, sexual assault and PTSD are real, but that is not the totality of things,” DeStefano said.

For the film, DeStefano interviewed 100 women as they prepared to head home at the end of their deployments and followed up with several for years afterwards. Their experiences varied: some were negative and fearful, but many were positive.

“One woman described it as a fortunate way to reorder her thoughts in a way that strengthened her marriage and the away she reacted to her children. The beautiful part is that a lot of women veterans are stepping up and into the public eye,” DeStefano said. “The more people step forward and identify as vets, the more we see their resiliency and get to celebrate the incredible things they’ve done.”

Eventually, those celebrations may help break the stereotype of the veteran as an older man wearing a campaign cap.

Silvia, who broke a few stereotypes of her own along the way, wants to ensure that happens.

“I tell (female veterans) the next generation is not going to find out about what you’ve done, if you don’t put it on record,” she said.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review
staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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