Photo project focuses on women veterans

Several of the women veterans who came to the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System for a photo shoot Thursday were: front, Sarah Smith and Marie Butler, both Army; Larkin Harris, Navy, health system specialist at the VA; Argentina Coy, Army; and Cheryl Walker, Army. Back, Jade Smith, Army, with the Decatur clinic; Lori Jones, Army, executive assistant to the director, Danville VA; and photographer Gene Russell with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

DANVILLE — If you ask a passerby to pick out a veteran in a crowd, most people would point to a man in a cap. Most people don’t think to point to a woman, who could be a grandmother, mother or daughter — but still, someone who has served.

The Center for Women Veterans’ campaign, “I Am Not Invisible,” hopes to change that attitude by putting women veterans and their accomplishments in the spotlight.

“This is very emotional to me, and makes me feel appreciated,” Navy veteran Nikita Richards of Bloomington said after finishing a photo shoot in Danville.

“Finally, people are paying attention to the needs of women veterans.”

Thirty-five women from across Illinois came to the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System on Thursday to have their portraits taken by Gene Russell. He is the photographer to Robert Wilkie, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Russell, an Army veteran, is crossing the country to take photos of women veterans, who are too often overshadowed by men. He was in Indianapolis and Cincinnati before coming to Danville.

Illinois is the 35th state and Danville is the 47th city to be featured since the “I Am Not Invisible” project started two years ago. More than 2,000 women veterans have been photographed so far.

VA Illiana partnered with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs in this nationwide effort to raise awareness about the contributions of women veterans. About 49,000 women veterans live in Illinois, with about 2,300 using services at the Illiana System.

The photographs will be showcased as a virtual exhibit, and later will be part of traveling exhibits.

Russell said the “I Am Not Invisible” project is a microcosm of what America is. “It brings a variety of women together to tell the story of women veterans,” he said.

While he was serving in the Army infantry, Russell said his unit didn’t come into contact with women soldiers. But, he has a sister who served more than 37 years in the Navy — calling her his military hero — and that made him aware of women’s roles in the military.

After taking one woman’s photo, Russell told her, "I'm a man standing in front of you and saying, ‘Ma’am, thank you for your service.’”

As part of his photo shoot, Russell asked each woman to fill out a form detailing her service.

Then, he had the woman stand in front of a white backdrop in a comfortable pose while he clicked several photos, which took just a few minutes. With his good humor, Russell made each woman feel important and relaxed.

He said he’s amazed at some of the tasks that women veterans have done, such as serving as a torpedo loader, leading troops, driving a truck and much more.

“The women in this room have done so many incredible jobs in the military. America just doesn’t know this,” he said.

Through the portraits, he said, “We just want to capture their spirit, their pride, their playfulness. It’s a way to honor the veterans.”

Ten other photographers in other states have partnered with Russell or have done their own photographs to help cover all 50 states.

For the women who came to the photo shoot Thursday, it was a positive experience.

Brittney Petticrew of Westville served in the Air Force from 2007-2015 as a parachute rigger and was in charge of the life-saving equipment on planes. She served in Afghanistan in 2010.

As for the event at the VA, she said, “It was awesome.”

The topic of women veterans gets overshadowed so much because so many more men choose the military as a career, she said.

Also, she said of the photo exhibit, “I think it’s good for younger generations to see it.”

Petticrew works with Care in the Community at Illiana.

Jade Smith, who joined the Army National Guard when she was 17, said she loved the photo shoot.

Referring to other women veterans, she said, “It’s a sisterhood. They’re my family.” She added that she misses the camaraderie.

Smith is administrative assistant for the VA's Decatur out-patient clinic.

Ginny Narsete drove more than two hours from Lisle to attend the event. She served in the Air Force as an administrator and public affairs officer from 1973-2006.

“I think it’s great. I love it,” she said of the idea to promote women veterans.

In fact, Narsete came up with the idea of Operation HerStory, an all-women flight to Washington, D.C. The flight will leave Chicago in October, and will follow the same protocol as an Honor Flight.

She has gathered donations, and has just started recruiting women for the free trip.

Richards of Bloomington served as a firefighter in the Navy from 1999-2001. Referring to Russell, she said, “Our national best is here photographing us. That says a lot about how seriously they’re taking us.”

She serves on the Illinois Council on Women and Girls, which includes women veterans.

Originally produced by the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs (http://www.iani.oregondva.com), the main goal is to use this project as a conduit for increasing the visibility of women veterans throughout Illinois, to honor their service, and celebrate their accomplishments.

There are about 2 million women veterans, making up 10 percent of the veteran population.

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