Water colors and loose sheets of paper are spread across a large table at the White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Conversations buzz as women veterans share their stories, some for the first time, with cartoonists from the Center for Cartoon Studies — a White River Junction-based school for aspiring cartoonists and illustrators.
Together they will create a cartoon strip about women's experiences in the military.
Sarah Nolin was in the Navy.
“I was active duty for nine years and I've been a reservist ever since, so I have about 20 years total,” Nolin says. “And this book that he's looking at is actually a photo album of my Afghanistan deployment in 2012 and 2013.”
Nolin points out pictures of herself to artist J.D. Lunt as he quickly sketches — working to get the details of her uniform just right.
“I know I had a pistol and a rifle I carried when I was there. We were armed all the time. Most of the time I just carried the pistol,” she says.
Lunt is the cartoonist who helped spearhead this project.
After doing a previous book with the Department of Veterans Affairs about veterans’ issues called "When I Returned," he noticed that there were no women portrayed within that book.
Now he wants to change that.
Cartoonist Kurt Shaffert sketches mother and son pair. They discuss what it was like as a military family and for a mother raising a son as they traveled. Credit: Rebecca Sananes/VPR
“These are stories that we know aren't heard nearly enough, especially in the culture that we're swimming in right now, to get to amplify that voice and share that voice and get to do what we love — which is making comics — sharing these important stories is just the biggest honor," says Lunt.
About 10 to 15 percent of the US military is made up of women. But many feel like their stories and experiences are often overlooked.
Gail Fanscher, a retired Air Force veteran, describes what it was like moving her family around for different deployments.
“[My son John] was in four or five — no, six different schools,” says Fanscher.
As she talks, Kurt Schaffert scribbles furiously trying to capture Fanscher’s stories and likeness in cartoon form.
Gioia Cattabriga served for 10 years between the 70’s and 80’s everywhere from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to Frankfurt, Germany.
She says her biggest threat in that time wasn't the enemy — but her male peers.
“I hated the everyday politics and the fact that women were blamed for so much and we were really resented I think and regarded as freaks,” says Cattabriga. “When I came home on leave, people that knew me in my hometown said, 'you know there are only two kinds of women that join the service: whores and lesbians — which one are you?'”
That's part of the reason why Carey Russ, the Women's Program Manager at the White River Junction medical center, co-wrote a grant for the VA Innovators Network — a national program developed in 2015 that funds projects conceived by veterans and aimed at helping veterans.
Twenty-two sites around the country are part of the program. Most projects that receive funds from the network deal with medical treatment.
But Russ thought the arts had a place in Veterans Affairs too.
“Women still feel invisible. They still feel like their stories aren't heard and their experiences aren't heard. And they often tell me people still don't know that women are in the military and that women are veterans and I think that it's really validating for women who have served alongside men for many years to be thought of as their equal counterpart. Because of course, they are.”
The women will continue to meet with cartoonists throughout the year and together they will create a series of illustrated stories that will be shared with VA women's programs around the country.
From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI