President Barack Obama jokes with military personnel along a tarmac ropeline before boarding Air Force One at Pittsburgh International Airport in Pittsburgh, Pa., June 24. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Nine years of being treated by her male colleagues in the Army as if she didn't deserve her sergeant stripes did not leave Jennifer Malinski inclined to join the American Legion once she left service.
"A bunch of old men," she figured, correctly describing the majority of the membership of the nation's largest veterans group.
Glen Borg, who met Malinski in Fayetteville, where they both live, knew it would be a hard sell trying to recruit her to his American Legion post.
"Look around," said Borg, who is 75, motioning toward the 300-plus members attending the annual state convention of the American Legion at the North Raleigh Hilton. "Most of the people who attend the meetings are just like the ones you see here."
Men, in their 60s or older, most of them retired.
"Women have different issues," Borg said, referring to the varied heath concerns women experience as a result of military service, as well as sexual assault and harassment. "And they don't want to come to a meeting and discuss female stuff with a bunch of us old timers sitting around."
But Borg, who joined the Legion five years ago, knew the organization had something to offer female veterans, and that it needed them as members. So he suggested Malinski start a post with no men in it, as a handful of others have done around the country.
Launched in January, Post 540 in Fayetteville is the only all-female Legion unit in the state, but its 16 members represent a rare growth area for veterans groups. The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and similar groups have seen their membership decline or stagnate in recent years as they struggle to get younger veterans to replace older ones who are dying.
"World War II and Korean War veterans were joiners," said Frank Stancil, adjutant of the American Legion in North Carolina. "They went to war, they came home, they went to work. They were thankful that they had made it, so they got involved with their communities. They joined veterans groups and community groups, helping rebuild the country."
Stancil, who served in the Navy while the U.S. was involved in Vietnam, said that starting in his era, veterans didn't automatically join such groups when their service ended because they didn't want to be associated with an unpopular war.
"Then came Grenada, and the Gulf War, and then Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere else, and these young folks are not particularly joiners, either," he said.
Membership in the American Legion is open to anyone who served in the U.S. armed forces honorably during wartime, regardless of whether they saw combat. This includes any service since Aug. 2, 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait.
North Carolina has about 765,900 veterans, according to the Veterans Administration. About 41,200 of them belong to the American Legion, which lobbies Congress for veterans benefits; sponsors youth activities such as baseball, a high school oratorical scholarship program and Boys State and Girls State, annual summer programs where kids learn about government; and helps wounded service members and those in financial distress.
According to the Veterans Administration, women made up 8.1 percent of the veteran population in September 2010. In North Carolina that could mean more than 62,000 women are eligible to join veterans groups.
The American Legion doesn't track how many of its members are women, but Malinski says many of the female soldiers she served with don't even consider themselves veterans.
"They've been told their entire military career that they weren't real soldiers, because they didn't serve in combat. They're not allowed to serve in combat," Malinski said. "So when they get out, why would they even think that they were veterans?"
Malinski now works for a company helping find jobs for the disabled. At 38, she still has the straight posture and military bearing of a soldier, though she got out of the Army at Fort Bragg in 2000.
Even after she joined the American Legion, Malinski said, at the first conference she attended, "People said, 'What did you do in the Army? Were you a medic? A secretary? A nurse?'
"Well, no," she told them. "I was in intelligence. I killed people."
In the booklet Legionnaires got at check-in for this year's state convention, a photo of Patricia Harris pops out from a two-page spread introducing 10 ranking officers in the state organization. Commander of Division III, she is the only African-American and the only female in the upper ranks.
Harris was 30 when she deployed during the Gulf War. Now 50, she is founder of Women Veterans Support Services Inc., a nonprofit that educates female vets about their benefits.
Harris said she often works with homeless women who might qualify for emergency assistance from the American Legion and longer-term help from the VA's housing and health care programs. Unlike men who come to homeless shelters and quickly get channeled toward the VA and other assistance, most women who come to shelters are never identified as veterans.
``No one even asks the women if they served,'' Harris said.
Female vets who do go to Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics often have frustrating experiences. Most VA doctors are men, Harris and others say, and often are dismissive of women's concerns about widespread orthopedic problems they believe are caused by their military service. Women who have deployed overseas also have questions about the effects of chemicals on rates of breast and cervical cancer.
Through their membership in the American Legion, which takes their concerns to Congress, female vets can help force improvements at the VA, Harris said.
"When we offered to serve, we all wrote a blank check to the government for the value of our lives,'' Harris said. "We all deserve the same treatment.
"Changes are coming," she said. "It's just not happening fast enough."
Just as combat veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder often say the only people who understand their experience are other combat vets, Malinski says there is a great camaraderie among female vets.
Under American Legion regulations, Post 540 can't exclude men, but as long as only women attend the monthly meetings, Malinski says she and others appreciate being able to talk with other women who have the same experience. It's one of the reasons the Legion was founded in 1919, after World War I.
"It's just nice to go somewhere and talk to people who know you did what you did."