Muskegon welcomes and honors women veterans

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By Donna Schillaci

Legal News

Muskegon was home to three significant events for women veterans from across the country last week -- a proclamation of the first-ever Women Veterans Day by a city in Michigan, the kickoff of a national peer support program called the Military Sisterhood Initiative, and the inaugural HER2 Military Women of Excellence Awards.

Participants from as far away as Colorado and Maine were in town for the April 25-26 events, which were conceived, driven, and coordinated by WINC: For All Women Veterans, a local organization with a national following that’s dedicated to promoting the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health of the female veteran. The group was profiled in the Nov. 15, 2017 edition of the Examiner. 

Zaneta Adams, WINC’s dynamic founder and president, is a litigation attorney with Williams Hughes where, among other things, she helps veterans fight for their benefits, a battle she is quite familiar with based on her own difficult experience as a wounded veteran. She started WINC in 2009 to help women with the unique healing process they undertake as returning veterans.

City of Muskegon Mayor Stephen Gawron presented a proclamation declaring April 26, 2018, as the first annual Women Veterans Day in Muskegon, in a ceremony at the USS Silversides Museum. The proclamation reads, in part,  “...on this day we commemorate the women who fearlessly served our nation, and we honor our female veterans and their families, for their remarkable service, sacrifice, and outstanding contributions to our nation.”

Muskegon is the first city in Michigan to establish a Women Veterans Day, and Adams said WINC is working with State Rep. Terry Sabo to do the same thing at the state level. Michigan would be just the sixth state to do so.

In his presentation, Gawron cited the 2 million women veterans nationwide, and the fact that  20% of today’s military personnel are women. When all the women veterans in attendance at the ceremony came together for a salute, Gawron said, “I’m not a veteran, so I can’t salute. But I can hold my heart. My love, my fealty, my appreciation goes to all of you for what you’ve given me and all the rest of us.”

Kickoff meetings for the Military Sisterhood Initiative (MSI), a nationwide support network designed by and for women of the military, were held at the Shoreline Inn last week. This innovative program is the brainchild of Adams, who says she woke up one morning with the idea, including the 12-step pledge that would drive the initiative.

Adams called her friends at Challenge America (CA), an organization dedicated to developing support within and among the militar and civilian communities, she had worked with over the years. According to Dallas Blaney, CA’s director of operations, “When Zaneta called, we went to work, and we’ve been working ever since. You can’t say no to the woman.”

WINC and CA partnered together to launch MSI, which has two components: a virtual online “safe space” where active and inactive military women can connect, share thoughts, and support each other; and live, in-person contact for these women with a national conference, regional meetings, and local get-togethers.

The Muskegon events concluded with a gala dinner and award ceremony at the Folkert Community Hub. The evening began with Rep. Sabo presenting a State of Michigan Special Tribute to Adams, stating, in part, “We all benefit from the patriotism of a woman like Zaneta Adams.”

Celebrity hosts for the evening, Dana Tolson Blake and Ivan Ellis, introduced the keynote speaker, U.S. Army Reserve Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) Michele Jones. Jones was the first woman to reach this position, and at one time was the highest-ranking African-American female enlisted person in any branch of the U.S. military.

In her remarks, Jones strongly encouraged all female veterans and active military to get involved in organizations like WINC and “support the SOS, Sisterhood of Service… All we want is to be recognized, heard, validated. We’re not asking for a lot. We’ve given so much of ourselves.” She added, “I’m 55. I’m going to help and support my sisters until the day I die.”

The culmination of the evening was the awarding of HER2 Military Women of Excellence Awards to 11 women, for their “exemplary performance honoring, empowering, encouraging, and restoring women of the military.” The awards were given in three categories: Excellence in Exemplary Achievement, Excellence in the Community, and Outstanding Support of Veterans.

Winners included: Dr. Ruth Moore, of Milbridge, Maine, a U.S. Navy veteran whose name is on two congressional acts addressing the needs of military sexual assault victims. Barbara Locke, of Hart, a U.S. Air Force veteran who currently works with women in a new post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) group; Venitrice Williams, of Muskegon, who served three years in the Army, receiving numerous decorations and medals; Heidi Zellar, of Fruitport, who did two tours of Germany with the Army, then joined the Army Reserves, for a total of 13 years of service; Dr. JoAnn Fisher, who served 15 years in the U.S. Navy Reserve, the CEO and founder of the Women Veterans United Committee, Inc., in Washington, D.C.; Shantelle Mainville, of Grand Rapids, who received many awards and medals while serving with the Army in Iraq. Genuva Williams, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, who is affiliated with several organizations serving veterans and community members in Muskegon; Joey Caswell, of Rockford, who became a full-time caregiver when her husband was injured in Iraq, and who later helped to start Warriors and Caregivers United; Mitze Alexander, who served four years active duty in the Army and 16 years in the National Guard and assisted in the start of the Lakeshore Young Marines in Muskegon.

Willa Neil Garrett, a 20-year Army veteran, received her Military Women of Excellence Award from Jayme Vosovic, regional coordinator for U.S. Senator Gary Peters; Adams and Jones are shown with them. Garrett is a licensed clinical social worker in Houston, Texas, working with veterans with PTSD. Rachel Prater, an ambulatory care nurse at the Battle Creek Veteran Affairs Medical Center, was not able to attend the ceremony to receive her award.

Those wishing to learn more or make a donation to WINC or the MSI should visit their websites, www.wincforall.com and www.militarysisterhoodinitiative.org.

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