When someone says the word “veteran,” the image that immediately jumps to mind is usually that of a man, hair turned to gray, with wrinkled skin and slower to move, but carrying themselves with the same pride and dignity they learned — and earned — while serving their country.
The image that hardly ever comes to mind?
That of a woman.
Retired U.S. Air Force veteran and senior master sergeant Phyllis Whetsel believes it’s high time for that to change.
Whetsel, who is originally from New York, served 21 years of active duty and retired last June. Her husband, Brook, retired last January after 26 years of his own in the Air Force. The couple met while stationed together at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii and were married in 2012.
After a joint retirement ceremony on the USS Missouri, the couple relocated to Wesley Chapel last August, with Whetsel’s mother and three of their four children, ranging in age from five to twenty.
Most of the men in Whetsel’s family were service members, including her father, who passed away in 2016. Her eldest son lives in Idaho with his husband; both men are currently serving in the Air Force.
“Whenever I’m talking to someone and they ask what brought me here, they assume that when I say I’m retired from the military, I’m actually speaking of my husband,” says Whetsel, 42. “It’s still a mindset that the military (mainly) consists of men.”
Wanting to change that mindset while connecting local fellow female veterans, Whetsel created a new Facebook group last month (search “American Women Veterans of Wesley Chapel, New Tampa and Surrounding Areas” on Facebook)that she hopes will bring together members of this unique group, which is bigger than many believe.
According to the Washington Post, 20 percent of new recruits in all four branches of the military are women. Nearly 280,000 of those who served in Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn were women, and about 9 percent of the overall U.S. military veteran population, or more than 2 million, are women.
Baby Steps First
Whetsel’s group currently has just nine members, but the page is already very active, with posts about other female veterans, resources for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), military news and of course, lighthearted memes.
“So far, the feedback has been very positive,” says Whetsel proudly. “While we serve alongside men, our military experiences are very different, and that’s what bonds us.”
Whetsel expects her group, which currently has 58 members, to grow substantially once word gets around, and is hoping to exceed 1,500 members by the end of the year.
The only requirements for membership: be a veteran of any United States military branch and of course, be a woman. Whetsel trusts the integrity of her members and does not require proof of service.
Whetsel says that although she knows of several groups for female veterans based in the heart of Tampa, hers is the first specifically for the New Tampa/Wesley Chapel area. She naturally gravitated toward Facebook because of her familiarity with it. She now works as a Mary Kay consultant.
“This is definitely going to be a positive, uplifting group,” says Whetsel. “Not everything about being a female vet is positive, so I just wanted a place where women can chat, joke around and share their stories.”
The first group activity Whetsel planned was a gathering at her home on March 1 (the day we went to press with this issue) for coffee. After she gauges the response to that and a few of the group’s other ideas, she’ll move on to larger events in the community, and hopes to grow the group enough to be affiliated with American Women Veterans, a national organization based in Washington, D.C.
“I’m looking forward to connecting with my new tribe,” said member Stephanie Jamison, who retired as a master sergeant in August after more than 20 years in the Air Force and moved with her family to the area last June. “It’s tough leaving the military family behind, but I’m thankful for groups like this!”
Fellow Air Force veteran Beatriz Cruz, who now lives in Wesley Chapel, echoed Jamison’s sentiments.
“This group means meeting other women veterans, and hopefully having the same camaraderie we had in the military,” says Cruz.
Whetsel says she is looking forward to adding more members to the group.
“I really believe that even though we are no longer in the military,” she says, “we still have so much to contribute — not only to each other, but to the community.”
For more information about the group or to join, visit the “American Women Veterans of Wesley Chapel, New Tampa and Surrounding Areas” page on Facebook.