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Washington women veterans served their nation with pride

"Working hard overcomes a whole lot of other obstacles. You can have unbelievable intelligence, you can have connections, and you can have opportunities fall out of the sky. But in the end, hard work is the true endearing characteristic of successful people."

These are words by Rear Admiral Marsha Johnson Evans. These words embody the spirit of service of women in the military and those of us who served and now are called "veteran."

Public opinion is divided regarding women in military service. The fact stands that women represent an irreplaceable part of our armed forces. The role of women in wartime dates back to the Continental Army and our nation's struggle for independence. Women are making the ultimate sacrifice in the current war at higher rates than in other wars. They are experiencing dramatic changes and challenges upon their return home. Ordinary women are doing extraordinary things as they answer the call to duty.

Whether they spent their military service stateside, or are returning from Iraq and other global conflict zones, women veterans face special challenges. From job training to health care, war and sexual trauma to child care, military women have gender-specific needs that often do not get public attention.

Part of this lack of attention is because we allowed ourselves to think that we are not veterans. If asked if she was a veteran, a woman would say, "No." But, if asked if she ever served in the armed forces, she would say, "Yes."

The media images are usually action shots of men in combat gear charging the enemy and jumping out of airplanes while those of women are stationary. This further contributes to the perception if you are not engaged in action you are not a veteran. Many women and some men who did not serve in combat are not self identifying as veterans.

I recently attended two events for women veterans, one sponsored by the King County Washington Women Lawyers and another by Sen. Patty Murray. These forums enabled women veterans and veterans' mothers to tell their stories and connect with those who seek to understand and better serve their needs. At the state level, the Department of Veterans Affairs appointed a Women Veterans Advisory Committee to provide advice and solutions to the issues that women veterans present. There is great interest and progress in the effort to serve women veterans in our state.

There are nearly 60,000 women veterans in Washington, and the number is growing. We live in a state that embraces women who served at all levels of government and at the business and community levels. The message to women veterans is getting out, but there is still much to be done in getting these veterans the benefits and recognition they earned.

This is a call to action - from the 80-year-old World War II woman who served at Fort Lewis to the 19-year-old woman who served in Iraq and is coming home. We served our country with honor and pride, now it's time stand and say "I am a veteran" with that same honor and pride.

Lourdes "Alfie" Alvarado is deputy director for the Department of Veterans Affairs and chair of the Governor's Affirmative Action Policy Committee. A member of The Olympian's Diversity Panel, Alvarado can be reached at alfie@dva.wa.gov.