By Staff Sgt. Katie Gar Ward, 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 20, 2014
NORFOLK, Va. (AFNS) -- The Sea Services Leadership Association hosted the 27th Annual Joint Women's Leadership Symposium here June 12-13, to recognize the strengths and talents of women in the armed forces and discuss the unique aspects of being a female service member.
More than 800 U.S. and international service members from all branches attended the two-day event, which featured keynote speakers, an awards luncheon, professional development sessions and service-specific forums.
In conjunction with the conference's theme, "Why Do You Serve," the guest speakers expanded on aspects of military lifestyle that impact women the most, challenges that are unique to female service members, as well as lessons from their careers and life experiences.
The first day of the symposium began with opening remarks from retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, Coast Guard director of incident management and preparedness policy. She spoke about the history and evolution of women in the military and government departments.
"We have this amazing country, constitution and history, and women have been a part of it since the Revolutionary War," Landry said. "I realize the struggles of what it means to be a woman in the service, and I have so much respect for the women who came before us."
Landry also offered advice and insight relating to why she chose to serve, and how it relates to women currently serving in the military.
"While you all have various reasons for serving, they are all right reasons," she said. "(But) your reasons will also change and evolve over time, so allow that wonderful evolution. You will look back and see how much you have accomplished, because the military is a great place for lifetime learning."
During her remarks, Landry touched on the various challenges women face in the armed forces, such as trying to find a perfect balance between home life and work, and encouraged female service members to accept that sometimes there will be an imbalance.
"Many of you are top achievers -- you wouldn't survive in the military if you weren't, so don't be hard on yourself,” she said.“Don't dwell on the things that challenge you. Respect each other's diversity and respect what you all bring to (the military). We are women in the service, but we are also people in the service with a relevant place in it. As we rest on the shoulders of all those who served before us, we have to thank them and I also thank you. Each day you are paying them back through your contributions."
Following the opening guest speakers, service members attended professional development sessions and informational forums, which focused on financial planning and decision-making strategies, and also included a session pertaining to the Defense Department’s sexual assault prevention strategy. The forums fostered many networking opportunities and helped promote a learning environment for future leaders, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Cari Thomas, the chairman of the board for SSLA.
"There is a legacy in leadership," she continued. "I've been in the Coast Guard since 1980 ... and it's been an amazing 34 years of wearing this uniform. It's my job now to give back to the women who will follow and that's the purpose of this symposium. I want them to learn from each other, because we all come from different places and backgrounds, have different thought processes and there's not just one right way to do something."
Thomas also shared what she thinks can be an obstacle for female service members. Something she calls the "can't say no gene," an aspect of one's work ethic that can sometimes take away from time with family.
"In our nature (as) wives (and) mothers, we want to love and give compassion, so when we see someone who is hurting or needs help, we want to help them. That's part of what our ethos is," she said. "(But it's) important ... to find flexibility in your family to be able to handle all the vagaries of life. When I put this uniform down, I still want to be married and I still want to be a mom. The work is going to be there afterward, and it's okay to stop work to go home and spend time with your family."
The second day of the symposium was centered around service-specific activities, where members of each branch gathered with their respective services for question and answer sessions, forums and small-group discussions. During the Air Force sessions, participants discussed health tips, sexual assault prevention and response and retention issues among women in the military.
For Tech Sgt. Monica Alvarado, a 633rd Medical Group ophthalmic technician, hearing from women who share similar challenges creates a collaborative environment where she can apply those lessons to help shape her own reasons for serving.
"I serve because I wanted to make a difference in my community and for my children, to show them you can ... do something for the community as well as yourself," she said. "This symposium, a simply amazing experience I've never had before. I've learned a lot from (the women) in the different services, their perspectives, their (experiences) and successes, and that even if you go through challenges, you can still be successful."
During the Air Force session, Chief Master Sgt. Trae King, the 633rd Air Base Wing command chief, addressed the more than 100 Airmen in attendance, first expressing her experience after attending her first symposium four years ago, where only 30 Airmen were present.
"I left my first year so inspired and encouraged. You represent more than the 100 ladies here today -- you represent the whole Air Force," she said. "I've been in 29 years, and when I think of why I serve, it's because of all of you."
King continued sharing her motivations for joining after coming from humble beginnings. She said her initial goal was to make the rank of master sergeant, but that desire expanded over the course of her career.
"I didn't see women in (higher ranks), I didn't see female generals," she said. "I could've gotten out 10 years ago, but the Air Force has changed my entire life. It's afforded me many opportunities, and allowed me to raise my daughter ... I started going to school. Now I serve because I have the opportunity to lead (women like you) all the time, and (you) encourage and empower me every single day. When people ask me why I serve, I say, 'Well why not?'"