By Michelle Love
Last year, I was approached by an elderly woman while attending a VFW convention in Pittsburgh. She needed help finding the registration booth. Noting the Ladies Auxiliary emblem on her blouse, I pointed her in the opposite direction from which I had just come. She thanked me for my assistance but, before she left, asked me “Where did your husband serve?”
In the past, I would have joked about having dodged the matrimony bullet but, as a 42-year-old single woman, I no longer found that witticism humorous. Instead, I merely replied, “I am not married. I served in Korea.”
The little old lady looked confused, then peered through bespectacled eyes at the badge on my chest, inspecting it thoroughly as if to confirm what I had just said was true. After determining that my words were indeed fact, her eyebrows raised sharply and a surprised “Oh!” escaped her lips. Before I had the chance to respond, the lady quickly muttered, “Well, thank you for your service,” then shuffled away with her walker.
(Click on images to view captions.)
I couldn’t understand why she seemed so shocked. After all, we were at the national Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. Then I remembered: I wasn’t wearing my hat.
Having just transferred from Post 91 to Post 4137 a few months earlier, I hadn’t gotten around to ordering a new cap. So I did what I thought was the next best thing: I took my old cap to my dry cleaner to have it altered.
The task should have been simple enough. Just remove the “91” and replace it with a “4137.” However, after several attempts to make the changes I requested, my hat ended up looking like something created in Frankenstein’s laboratory. There was no way I could wear it in public.
I tried to console myself with the reminder that it was no longer mandatory to wear hats at VFW functions. However, the stares I got whenever I entered a meeting room made me feel out of uniform. It finally took a gentleman in one of the breakout sessions I wanted to attend to point out that “The ladies are meeting down the hall.”
It took me a moment to register what he meant. He assumed I was a Ladies Auxiliary member, an organization made up of family members of those who’ve served in areas of overseas combat. I straightened my posture and proclaimed, “I am a Veteran, too.” Was that what all the stares had been about? As a forty-something African American woman, I’m not necessarily what comes to mind when people think of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. However, I found it disturbing that, without my cap, it was assumed that I was just related to a Veteran. I couldn’t possibly be a Veteran myself.
The bitterness I felt at this revelation was soon replaced with excitement. An announcement was made that the President of the United States would be attending the convention the next day! I woke up early and donned my “uniform” of gray slacks and a navy blazer before making my way to the convention center.
After President Obama spoke, a group of people rushed to the front of the hall for a chance to shake his hand. I was among them, pressing my way to the front of the cordon that separated him from the rest of the crowd. However, being vertically challenged, he did not see me.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the President would’ve seen me if I was wearing my hat?
I was determined not to have this happen again. When I was sworn in this past May into my new position as District 2 Senior Vice Commander of the VFW Department of Washington, I ordered my new cap to ensure that it arrived in time for the national convention in July.
That week, no one mistook me for an Auxiliary member. I received no odd looks or was told to go down the hall with the rest of the ladies. I felt like I belonged. It wasn’t until after I returned home a few days later that I questioned why it took a $70 piece of fabric for me to be acknowledged for my service to my country?
I’d hoped that President Obama would make one final appearance at our convention. However, since it was an election year, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were invited to speak instead. I will never know if the President would have seen me, wearing my proof of service.
Despite the missed opportunity, I wear my hat with pride, knowing that I’m part of a long line of men AND women who answered the call of duty.
Michelle Love is a proud veteran of the United States Air Force and active member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She is also a member of the VFW Auxiliary, earning her eligibility to join through her father’s service during the Vietnam War. Michelle is still single and lives in Tacoma with her fur baby, a Whippet named Devo.
Editor’s note: Michelle is the sister of Jackie Weatherspoon, a 2015 VOA rookie who politely took a pass on writing something this year but did the next best thing: nominated her sibling! Jackie is another former ex-Oregonian staffer who I recruited to Portland. Turns out her big sis lives near our youngest son near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Tomorrow: George Rede, Susie Reimer and the Humdinger