When Capt. Kerri Turner made up her mind to compete for a title that would make her a symbol of the modern woman veteran, she called on the stories of female soldiers who came before her.
She wove a narrative linking women who’ve served on the front lines from the days of the American Revolution to today’s battlefields in Afghanistan. Her monologue stole the show and helped her earn the ceremonial role of Ms. Veteran America 2015.
“It’s such a huge honor,” said Turner, a Washington National Guard soldier who lives in Tenino. “I’m not just representing me. I’m trying to honor every generation of women veterans.”
Her title makes her the face of a campaign to raise money for projects that help homeless women veterans find stability. It’s sponsored by a small nonprofit called Final Salute Inc., which tries to find transitional housing for women veterans and their children in times of need.
The number of homeless veterans has been declining persistently since 2010. Advocates say women are a hard-to-reach minority (about 9 percent) of the 47,725 veterans who experienced homeless last year.
Some worry the country may see a rising number of homeless women veterans based on the increasing presence of women in the military. Now, about 15 percent of the military’s active-duty troops are women.
Eventually, they’ll separate from the Armed Forces and turn to services at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an agency that traditionally has focused on a mostly male population.
The rising number of women in the military is one reason Turner, 32, says, “female veterans are the fastest-growing homeless population in the country.”
Since she earned the role in October, Turner has been busy attending different events promoting opportunities for women in the military and speaking up on challenges women face after leaving the uniform.
We could love our country even before our country loved us back.
Capt. Kerri Turner
Turner participated in Pierce County’s homeless count last month, joined a December parade for the Military Bowl in Florida and traveled to Chicago for a military mom baby shower.
She speaks from a distinct background as a one-time teen mother who started Army basic training at age 22, nine months after the birth of her third child. Since then, she’s served on a deployment to the Middle East and worked for the National Guard in three states.
When she talks to high school students, she tries to leave them with an understanding that they can turn their lives around after facing setbacks.
“Don’t let your circumstances define you. If they’re homeless, it’s just a point in time in your life. It’s not your entire life,” she said.
Turner said she never lost that confidence in the years before she joined the military. For a time, the Idaho-born soldier followed the father of her children to Guam, where he was serving in the Air Force. She worked two jobs to support their income.
She’s held on to that ability to juggle parenting, her career and any number of projects that catch her attention.
Her to-do list these days includes:
▪ A full-time assignment at the National Guard’s Camp Murray headquarters.
▪ Another National Guard task leading an officer-training program.
▪ Volunteer work as president of the Tenino School District’s parent-teacher association. Superintendent Joe Belmonte called her “a diligent person and a gift to our community.”
▪ Running a house with her children and those of her Army pilot husband who often has to travel for weeks at a time on training assignments.
▪ And, helping to manage a T-shirt company that designs apparel to appeal to women veterans. It’s called I Rock the Boots and it sells shirts decorated with female Spartans and cartridges in the shape of a heart with the words, “Te ammo.”
“It’s always like this. I always had my plate full. I’m at my best when I have a lot going on,” Turner said.
4,338 number of women veterans who experienced homelessness in 2015
Last year, when she sat down to think of a presentation for the Ms. Veteran America’s talent competition, she decided she wouldn’t make the story about her.
“I wanted it to be bigger than me,” she said.
She looked back to stories of women joining battles since the Revolution. Her monologue began with the story of Molly Pitcher, a woman who helped American soldiers fight the British by bringing water to cool off their artillery. When her husband left the battlefield, she took his place at a canon.
Her story moved forward to today, when women sometimes train to serve alongside Special Operations units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To Turner, the arc of American women in uniform she portrayed in her monologue conveyed that “we could love our country even before our country loved us back.”