When former Staff Sergeant Starlyn Lara joined the Army fresh out of high school in Roswell, New Mexico, it was a time of peace for those who were serving in the military.
Then came September 11.
Suddenly, for many who joined the armed forces in search of serving their country—what Lara calls a desire to “be a bigger person than I was”—that peacetime was no more.
“I sat there for about an hour, just dazed and confused, in awe of how my world was going to change,” recalled Lara to a crowd of military veterans gathered at the Twin Towers United Methodist Church in Alameda on Saturday. “That day was a completely different military, a completely different experience for those of us who served in a peacetime era.”
The group of about 40 veterans—most of them women—gathered at the church on Saturday for the fifth Women in Military History event, an annual celebration of women who have served in the armed forces, where veterans old and young shared their experiences with one another.
Following the September 11 attacks, Lara, like many other women present at Saturday’s event, was deployed to Iraq where she served two tours of duty. Though she told the crowd that her first deployment was a positive experience due to the camaraderie she felt serving among her peers, she said that some of the greater challenges—the details of which she did not share with the crowd—she encountered during her second tour are difficult memories.
And for many like Lara, those challenges are not left on the battlefield. Coming out of the military, becoming a civilian once again, can have problems of its own, something the veterans discussed at Saturday’s event.
“It was very, very difficult to adjust,” said retired Navy flight attendant Ali Grannis, 80, a Korean War veteran who attended the event. “There wasn’t anybody to turn to.”
That’s why gatherings like Saturday’s are so crucial, said Twin Towers parishioner Kathy Dieden, the event’s founder. It’s a chance to create a community for female veterans, she said, especially when services seem geared toward their male counterparts. She likened the healing community to the many local and national support groups that have formed for patients and survivors of breast cancer.
“When we know about something and we know that we can change things, we do. As women, we do,” she said. “So to be in a community that’s mostly populated by men, you don’t get that kind of support. You don’t get that understanding.”
Lara has made it her professional goal to foster that community through her work as the Women’s Veterans Coordinator at the San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares, a community group that has provided reentry services to veterans for 40 years. Her efforts earned her the “Guest of Honor” award at Saturday’s event.
The day’s program also included a keynote speech by Lindsey Sin, Deputy Secretary for Women Veterans Affairs at the California Department of Veterans Affairs, herself a Navy veteran. There are 185,000 women veterans in California, Sin said, and women are currently the fastest growing segment of the national veteran population. “This really is our time,” she told the audience.