KANSAS CITY — In a corner of American Legion Post 21’s bustling hall, women slowly began filling up a table at the back of a dining area set aside for taco night.
The table echoed with questions: “When were you in?” and “What branch?”
The women swapped stories over Mexican food, beers and pie. But they also offered each other advice about insurance, employment issues and medical problems.
It was Wednesday of the week leading up to Veterans Day, and they were starting an all-women American Legion post — a place where women veterans could talk about experiences and issues all their own.
The number of women veterans nationwide has increased 13 percent, to more than 1.8 million, since 2000. About 6,000 of them live in the Kansas City area, said American Legion officials, who applauded the interest in starting the new post here.
“It shows that women veterans are standing up,” said Verna Jones, director of national veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion.
“As the face of the soldier changes, the face of these veterans organizations has to change. We have to be ready to accept women coming back and accept those fundamental differences.”
An all-women post already exists in St. Louis, and Shirley Janes, a member of that post, came to talk to the Kansas City women.
She said her post is a channel to solve the serious and very different issues female veterans face on the job and at home.
Janes listed the concerns she’s heard in the past. Women have issues with child care when they go to VA clinics for medical treatments. Fighting on the front lines and living under war zone conditions causes combat-related problems.
And she hears about sexual trauma, a serious concern that one report shows has affected one in five women veterans — including some of those around the table Wednesday night.
Billie Gammill said she was looking forward to a forum where she could discuss concerns affecting women in the service.
Gammill served in the Air Force from 1973 to 1977, when she was right out of high school.
“My mother couldn’t afford to send me to college, and the GI Bill did,” said Gammill, who also spent a year in the Army in 1982.
Gammill said she’s been through the “mental health part of it,” meeting with a women’s group monthly to talk about her time in the military and help other women do the same.
“I’m on 70 percent disability because of some things that have happened to me when I was in the service,” she said.
Gammill has been chosen commander of the new post, named Heartland Women Veterans Post 1107.
Beverly Allen, 57, joined the Navy more than 20 years ago, producing the news as a broadcast journalist.
“I’ve been out of the Navy three years, and I really don’t have anybody to hang out with,” she said. “I thought this could be camaraderie.”
About 20 years ago, Janes could probably have related to what Allen is going through now. Janes served in the Air Force as a weather forecaster, and when she moved to St. Louis, she didn’t have any military friends.
Then she saw a flier for Post 404.
“With everything that’s happened since 1991 with Desert Storm and the ongoing global war on terror, a lot of people have worn the uniform — a lot of people you wouldn’t even know,” Janes said. “Women (generally) don’t wear a baseball cap that says U.S. Army, not like the guys do. You have to ask and find out.”
Gammill and Allen have seen big changes in the military.
When she joined in 1989, Allen said, the Navy was just beginning to put women aboard ships.
“By the time I got out, we were 40 percent of the ship,” she said. “When I first joined, it was like 10 percent women and the rest were guys.”
Even the uniforms have changed.
“In my generation, when I went through basic training, you weren’t handed a gun,” Gammill said. “You were handed a makeup mirror and taught how to wear your uniform that was dated 1949.”
In the four years she served with the Air Force, those World War II-era uniforms were traded in for fatigues.
Creating American Legion posts for women isn’t a move to isolate themselves, according to Janes and others from the St. Louis post.
“By forming our own post, we’re going to get the same job done,” she said. “We’ll just do it in a little bit different way.”
The American Legion has a membership of 3 million veterans who served during a war, not just in combat. That’s what distinguishes it from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose members served on the ground in countries with ongoing conflicts.
The VFW has just started in recent years to keep track of its women members. The organization previously saw all veterans as equal, but it’s now recognizing that women have specific needs when returning from combat, a spokeswoman said.
The American Legion does not begrudge the women who are branching off into their own post — far from it.
Gary Pace, the 5th District commander in Missouri, said attending a women veterans health meeting prompted him to think those women needed their own post.
“We’re getting a lot of interest in the women’s post,” he said. “I can understand why they want their own post where they can talk to one another.”
Post 21, where the women met for the first time on Wednesday, has about 15 women among its nearly 1,600 members. Pace said the post would have been “missing the boat” had it not backed the formation of an all-women post.
Jones of the national office thinks all-women posts are likely to draw more female veterans than existing American Legion posts do.
That’s not to say that some women might not feel more comfortable in a co-ed post, Jones said. But it does give them options.
Jones said that through survey results, the American Legion found an “alarming” number of women veterans were particularly concerned with the competence of their doctors. She noted that women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder might feel more comfortable discussing their experiences with other women.
Jones said she’s been amazed at the work all-women posts are doing.
“They understand intimately the issues and concerns of women veterans,” she said. “I think it gives the American Legion a big boost up. It puts something extra special right in the middle of it.”