In a room full of red hats and purple clothing and enough rhinestones to make any cowboy jealous, there are signs of military service: It’s not so blatant as a t-shirt that reads "veteran," but a sword pinned to the side of one of the red or pink hats.
“How are we going to support each other and stand up for each other if we can't recognize each other,” said Army veteran Linda Gill.
She is a member of the Red Hat Society.
Founded in 1998 by Sue Ellen Cooper in California, the society is a worldwide women’s networking society where members come together in various cities to live life to the fullest.
Over time Gill began to realize that there were fellow women veterans within the Red Hat Society and saw a need to be recognized. The idea came to her during a public event where the person on stage wanted to salute veterans in the audience.
“They asked for the veterans to stand up and all these men stood and I'm looking and there's three women I knew that were women veterans and they wouldn't stand up, but I stood up. I said, you know, if we don't stand up for ourselves nobody will,” Gill said.
Based on the principles of King Arthur and the fabled Knights of the Round Table — wherein the table represents equality among all who sit there — she wanted the symbol for veterans within the Red Hat Society to stand out and have similar symbolism.
“None of us have rank anymore,” Gill said. “So, we needed something that said we’re sisters.”
So, the blinged-out sword of the Sisters of the Sword was born.
“Let yourself be known, get out there,” said Julie Sieker.
Sieker is from Union, Kentucky and served in the US Army. She realized there was an issue with public perception tied to women veterans: While she faced scrutiny serving during the Vietnam Era, it was at the Red Hat Society international convention in 2005 where she says she got a sense that more people need to realize that women serve in uniform.
“Pat Boone said, 'this is normally part of my program where I recognize any veterans, but since there aren’t any here,'” Sieker recalled.
She says he then went on to sing another song.
After he had left the stage, she says the societies' founder took to the stage and mentioned it would have been a nice tribute to the women in the audience who are veterans.
“That’s when someone stood up and said 'I’m a veteran,'” Sieker said.
She says then one after another women in the audience began standing up and saying they too were veterans.
“It amazed me, first off that there were that many there, then when I heard Linda was going to put us together, I got really excited about that,” Sieker said.
The social aspect of the Red Hat Society and the Red Hat Society Chapter of U.S. Women Veterans — Sisters of the Sword — plays a key role in allowing some of the women veterans to speak out and stand tall about their service to their country.
“For a long, long time when somebody would say 'thank you for your service' and I go 'I really didn’t do anything, I was a photographer,'” said Navy veteran Tracy Schlaud.
Like other women veterans she compared her role as a naval photographer to that of other service members who played perhaps more critical roles in military missions. Ultimately, she said she wound up minimizing her service instead of standing up proudly at her kids' ball games.
“I don’t do it, I don’t feel comfortable cause I’m usually the only woman and it’s embarrassing to say that,” she said.
However, the social aspect of the Red Hatters and the knowledge of other Sisters of the Sword have empowered her to change her own mindset.
“Whether you served for a day or you served for twenty years stand up,” Schlaud said.
She’s even started her own chapter of the RHS and currently has more veterans in the membership than non-veterans.
One other aspect of the society and its red hats, purple attire and extravagant outfits is to perhaps take those involved to a different place in their life.
“I don’t know how to be, I’m learning it’s something I’ve struggled with and the Red Hat Society, by taking me out of my comfort zone, has allowed me to meet people I would not have otherwise met,” said Meghann Viggiani.
With more than 20 years in the US Marine Corps, now retired, learning to be something other than her military self has taken time, but the Red Hat Society has helped.
“It’s allowed me to be me, it’s okay not to be Master Sergeant Viggiani, I can be Meghann and it’s okay and it’s teaching me to be Meghann,” she said.
She says while she’s learning to be her best self, she’s still frustrated by societies assumption that veterans are men.
“Women can’t fix everything,” she said. “Men need to recognize that are their equals and they need to accept that we are also veterans.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says the number of women veterans is growing and women will make up approximately 18% of the veteran community by the year 2040.
Find a Red Hat Society chapter near you: https://redhatsociety.montonton.com/site.