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A portrait series of female veterans in Charleston and the stories they share

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It took more than 71 years for Congress to recognize women as equals in the U.S. military.

With the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, females were entitled to the benefits, jobs and respect that came with wearing a military uniform.

But it wasn’t until 2015 that the opportunity for America’s daughters to serve in all combat roles was afforded to women. It has become more frequent for women to enlist and perform the duties they once were not allowed to do.  

After their service, most of these veterans continue to give back even though they are not in active duty. They shared their experiences, from hardships to pleasant times, and memories.

This project highlights the stories of 17 female veterans — ages 21 to 83 — in the Charleston area.

Ashley Towers.jpg

Ashley Towers, 32, who served in the Army National Guard from 2008 to 2016, holds the Blue Star Service Banner her mother gave her after her service.

The sergeant was deployed to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and is now a student at The Citadel studying intelligence and security, as well as criminal justice.

"On our last day of training, I got a phone call that my brother was in a motorcycle accident. Everyone had all helped me pack up my stuff, and before you knew it I was on my way driving to see him," she said. "At that point I knew this was my family and they cared."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Rae Carlers, 63, served in the Air Force as a senior airman from 1977 to 1981.

Carlers recently got involved with the VA Golden Age Games, a program that helps senior disabled veterans compete in a variety of events. Carlers participated in pickleball, bowling and power walking.

"I played racquetball in school and when I heard about pickleball I was like, 'Pickleball, that is a food not a sport,' but I YouTubed it and saw the game and instantly fell in love with," she said.

Traveling across the country competing in these games has been an incredible journey for Carlers.

"In my adult life I made two great decisions, one was to join the Air Force and the second was to retire and move to South Carolina," she said. "There are so many opportunities for veterans to go sailing to go surfing to go fishing or even music for veterans. I wish more veterans, male and female, would talk to someone and do research because these opportunities are out there."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Henrietta Wildeboer, 83, a Navy commander, served from 1965 to 1985 as a nurse.

Wildeboer is seen wearing a homemade oak leaf necklace. Oak leaves are the Nurse Corps emblem. She used five for her ranking, the color blue for the Navy and white in between for nursing.

She remembers a time with one of her patients who was involved in an airplane accident.

“Although, it was painful for him to do some of the things he had to do, I pushed him and said if you want to live you have to do this," she said. "Later on he came back and thanked me.”

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Teresa Rix, 50, served in the Navy as a petty officer third class from 1987 to 1991. 

"Looking at this photo I see a brave young girl," she said while at Riverfront Memorial Park. "While being a 19-year-old woman in the military, you stand side-by-side with the men and have to put on a tough face at that age. I joined to see more opportunities and see the world. When I got to Europe it opened my eyes."

Rix currently works at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center as a program manager and said you don't have to be a physician at the VA to give back to other veterans.

Serving in the military was one of her greatest decisions she has ever made. "Even though there will be tough times, it will be the best time you will ever make," she said.

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Jessica Wilkes, 41, was in the Air Force from 2000 to 2012 as a staff sergeant. She holds up her combat camera patch from when she documented combat operations with Army units.

"It was through that experience that my love for our flag and country transformed to so much more," she said. "The experience of wearing our flag on my shoulder while running alongside my military brothers in a war zone — it was about being part of something bigger than myself, and I was proud to wear our flag just as my Army brothers did. And when the mission was over and we returned to base, when our flag came into sight, we could breathe a sigh of relief. It meant we would live to fight another day, and at that time we lived with the hope of seeing the next day."

Wilkes is now the USAF Veteran Program director at the College of Charleston, where she assists transitioning veterans in both the civilian and campus life.

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Chris Ward, 64, a Navy commander, enlisted in 1983 and served the Department of Defense community for 30 years before retiring in 2005.

She is now the executive director at the Fisher House Charleston, along with volunteering at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. Her first tour was in Yokosuka, Japan.

"This was the first time I had ever been out of the country and it was very exciting and a great immersion into life in the Navy," she said. "One time, we were preparing to board a destroyer from a tugboat in moderate seas just outside the mouth of the harbor. We were supposed to jump from the tugboat to the rope ladder the destroyer had put over the side. I leapt at the wrong time, and someone standing behind me grabbed me, suspending me in mid-air until the right time to jump. He actually saved my life because I would have been crushed between the two vessels. I never even got to see who it was."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Lutricia Overton, 44, was a staff sergeant from 1996 to 2006 in the Air Force.

"I had breast cancer for the first time in 2007 and again in 2018," she said. Her kids got her breast cancer boxing gloves because she was a fighter.

She works at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center as a transitional patient representative and also Minority Veteran Program coordinator.

While at the parade on her graduation in basic training, she remembers seeing her mom turn the corner, looking back at her crying with pride. "That was the moment I knew I did it."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Cecilla Hagen, 57, and her daughter Meredith Hagen, 34, both served in the Air Force. Cecilla was enlisted from 1981 to 1987 and Meredith from 2010 to 2016.

Meredith said she was inspired to join the military because of her parents being in the Air Force and other family members who also enlisted. She said if she didn't join she would've regretted it.

"What made everything into a full circle was back at basic training, during her graduation," Cecilla said. "Watching her march and run brought a lot of memories back to me."

For Meredith, in basic training there was a moment while she was running that a C-17 flew over her head. She stopped and looked up, thinking about her dad and her mom.

"I don't think dad cried at my wedding, I don't think dad cried at my college graduation, but when I saw them for the first time at attention from the corner of my eye, dad was standing there crying," she said. "I was like OK, they are proud."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Sherri Walden, 59, served in the Navy from 1984 to 1986 as an interior communications specialist.

After her service, she went on to become a police officer at the Crystal River Police Department in Florida for nine years.

"My dad and brother served in the Army, and I went into the Navy," she said. "My dad would teach me how to make my bed the right way. He would flip a coin on the bed to see if it was tight. He did it in a humorous way, not to be mean."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Kassidy Nelson, 21, was an Army specialist from 2016 until 2018. She's now a College of Charleston student.

"If you ask anyone in the military, tattoos are therapy. The first tattoo I got in the Army read, 'The sun will rise and we will try again.' I wasn’t in the best place mentally. ... After I got my tattoo and left, things got a lot better."

Nelson has a total of 13 tattoos, most of which she got in the military that have some special meaning to her. The first three weeks she was in training she had six fractures in her legs and had to go to rehab. Everyone was advancing and she was still in recovery. When she got out she had to completely start over.

"I am really glad I did because those people around me was the only time I felt truly in the Army, as a team."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Ali DiTommaso, 40, a specialist in the Army who served from 1998 to 2004, holds up a photograph of her grandparents, Lorraine Craig and Archie Craig, along with a document of her grandmother’s commissioning paperwork for the Army.

“Military is in our blood,” DiTommaso said. Her brother was in the Navy and her sister in the Army, along with other relatives who also served.

Her grandfather Carl DiTommaso also served. He died in 2005.

She remembers being at his funeral with her sister and brother, hearing the sound of taps play.

“It was the first time in a long time any one of us were to be in one place at a time. I don’t think any of us had cried like that ever in our lives.”

She said it was emotional to see the last military generation of her family leave.

"I wish I knew more about him."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Felicia Smith, 49, served in the Army from 1989 to 1995 as a military police officer.

“I didn’t really appreciate school until I was older. My mother said you have to do something, so I joined the Army,” Smith said.

She was assigned to corrections. She said getting catcalled in prison was the worst part of working in corrections, but the best was when she went to Germany. She was amazed by the food and people.

“If I could go back I would,” Smith said.

Her youngest son had thought about joining the military but wanted to go to school first.

“My overall experience was good, I wasn’t mistreated and was able to get out and move on in my career.”

She now works as a program analyst at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Sue Kerver, 44, looks out into the water of the Cooper River at Remleys Point Public Boat Landing in Mount Pleasant. She served in the Coast Guard from 2002 to 2012 as a lieutenant commander and then got called back for two more years.

Kerver works at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center as a voluntary service program manager and is starting up her own business called Two Gals and a Boat, which teaches women how to properly launch, trailer and recover boats.

"I feel women are underrepresented and want to help push past fear and doubt they may have," she said.

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Lashonda Snipes-Davis, 43, a staff sergeant in the Army from 1996 to 2016, holds a stuffed tiger her unit got while serving in Iraq.

"They left it on my bed with a card," she said.

She is now a student at The Citadel studying counter-intelligence and cybersecurity.

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Maryann Simpson, 30, served in the Coast Guard from 2013 to 2017 as a petty officer third class operations specialist.

Simpson joined the military to challenge herself and thought it would be fun.

"Boot camp was hard, it was a struggle, but I made it through being in shock at graduation. You are so used to being there it felt like home. You have your dad figure, your crazy uncles, that is how it is set up."

It was tough for her when she became pregnant while stationed in Charleston. A lot of men in the Coast Guard have kids, but "usually it's the other way around, when the mom would stay home and the dad would serve, but it's flipped."

While struggling with depression and frustrated with the lack of help, she eventually overcame that hardship herself.

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Sharon Friedrich served in the Navy from 1984 to 1989.

"Being in the Navy is like having one huge family," she said, adding that many of the friendships have lasted from boot camp until now.

She currently works as secretary to the associate director of nursing at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. She said being around veterans there is like being around her extended family.

"Since the age of 19 I have been involved with the military or veterans in some form, and that is something I am proud of," she said. "I want to help them and make sure they are taken care of how they should be."

Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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