Women veterans from across state hold gathering in Ephrata

By on April 3, 2019

One hundred female veterans converged on Ephrata recently for the 6th annual Women’s Veterans Retreat.

Coordinated by Amy MacKenzie of Ephrata’s VFW Post 3376, the gathering of women veterans took place at Bethany United Church of Christ on March 30 and 31. The women were members of the VFW, AMVETS, American Legion, and Disabled Veterans of America chapters from across the state, as well as active duty military in both Reserve and National Guard units.

“I chose to have the retreat here in Ephrata in my own backyard because I know that Ephrata is a wonderful town that is patriotic and loves its veterans,” said MacKenzie who was recently appointed coordinator by the state’s VFW leadership.

MacKenzie served four years in the U.S. Air Force as a German and Spanish linguist and was stationed in what was then West Berlin.

“I was there before, during and after the wall came down, so that was awesome,” she said.

Special quilt on display at the VFW Women’s Veterans Retreat. Photo by Missi Mortimer.

The event began March 29 as the veterans checked into the Hampton Inn and Suites. That evening they gathered for a meet-and-greet at the Ephrata VFW post on South State Street where they were welcomed by State Commander Thomas M. Hanzas as they enjoyed light refreshments. Saturday’s activities were held at the church as the participants took part in a series of workshops and seminars covering such things as VA Benefits, “specifically how to access healthcare benefits and navigate the VA hospital system,” MacKenzie said. There was also a talk on nutrition for all ages of women, as well as one by Wills for Heroes, a non-profit group that offers free help to veterans in drawing up wills. The local Toastmasters group was on hand to provide tips on public speaking and give leadership pointers, plus there were a host of other women’s veterans issues presented.

One speaker was Janice Gaveron of Montrose, deputy commander for the 15th district of the American Legion, who spoke about a women’s veterans program she is trying to create within the Legion. She also spoke about discovering an all-women American Legion post that existed from 1920 until 1988 in Scranton and was named after Welsh-born Gladys Watkins of Shickshinny who served as an Army nurse during World War I. Watkins died of influenza in France in October 1918 and is buried in the St. Mihiel American Cemetery, Thiaucourt, France.
T

he discussions were all held forum style as opposed to breaking up into small workshop groups, MacKenzie said, so “women can ask questions all together.”

“Sometimes you learn more from somebody else’s questions than you do just from the presenter,” she noted. Lunch for the participants was held at the nearby Applebee’s and was attended by all 100 women plus ten young women about to enter the Navy.

“I connected with local recruiters to invite their new recruits to join us for lunch so that those about to go into the military can meet those who’ve already been there so they could ask questions,” MacKenzie said.

Deputy Commander of the 15th District of the American Legion, Janice Gaveron, speaks to Ephrata Review reporter Larry Alexander.

MacKenzie was grateful to Applebee’s for accommodating 110 women “descending on them all at the same time.”

The weekend concluded as more than half the women attended Sunday services at Bethany, followed by a church-sponsored fellowship.

“Bethany has been very gracious,” MacKenzie said. “They have donated the use of the church to us free of charge for the whole weekend. So once again, it shows that the community really rallies around our veterans.”

MacKenzie selected Bethany based on her knowledge of the church since her three sons were all members of Boy Scout Troop 38 which the church hosts.
Overall, the weekend was a success.

“This has been fantastic,” Gaveron said. “Being able to get together with women veterans and talk about stuff that we understand and that we appreciate and all have a background in.”
Generally, she said, one finds women veterans in “onesies and twosies,” but to have 100 getting together to talk about things that they’re involved in “is wonderful.”

“The energy, the enthusiasm that they have is fantastic,” she said. Gaveron served four years of active duty in the Air Force followed by 22 years in the Reserves.

“I enlisted 51 years ago, 1967,” she said.

Christine Leclair from Compeer Mental Health Counseling.

 

Amy MacKenzie of Ephrata’s VFW Post 3376, who coordinated the local event, addresses the group Saturday

Army veteran Claresa Whitfield of Coatesville is commander of VFW Post 287 and Women’s Veterans chair for VFW District 9 which includes Lancaster County.

“This has been an amazing weekend,” said Whitfield, who saw three tours overseas including Bosnia and Kosovo. “It’s all about bringing women together to support each other and to provide a network so that no feels alone and that they’re the only one out there fighting the battle, because there is always another women out there who has faced or is facing the same challenges.”
Gaveron said gatherings like this are important because there are 71,000 women veterans in Pennsylvania and people don’t realize it.

“We’re like the best kept secret,” she said. “But if we can get women together and be visible, even if it’s something as simple as wearing a T-shirt that says ‘I served in the Air Force,’ it makes us more visible to the general public.”

As an example, she said few realize that during the February funeral of Navy fighter pilot Commander Rosemary Mariner, the “missing man formation” flyover by four Navy F-18 jets was conducted entirely by women pilots.

“It’s important to tell girls that kind of story,” Gaveron said. “It was the missing women formation.”

As the weekend ended following seven months of planning by her and her team, MacKenzie pointed out that it was entirely funded by donations, mostly by veterans’ posts from across the state. As a result, the participants had only a minimal cash outlay of $30 or less since most of the cost for food and lodging was covered.

Next year she is looking to hold the event in State College.

“That’ll make it more central,” MacKenzie said. “Pennsylvania’s a big state so somebody will have to drive no matter what.”

Larry Alexander is a freelance columnist based in Ephrata. He is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He can be contacted at larry2851@yahoo.com. 

2 Comments

  1. Paula Szanca

    April 7, 2019 at 9:15 pm

    So sorry I missed it! Sounded like it was a great time and a good turn out! Am definitely planning for next years State College event. 👍

  2. Vanessa Jenkins

    April 16, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    The retreat was Awesome! I attend the Women Veterans Center on Lawrence Street in Philadelphia. Several of our members attend and strengthen our bond with other Veterans in Pennsylvania. It’s wonderful to celebrate Women who served in our US Military branches. I look forward to our next retreat! Excellent job by the committee and volunteers.

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