Illustrating Stories Of Service: Vermont VA Pairs Women Vets With Cartoonists

Apr 21, 2017

About 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. military is made up of women, but many often feel like their stories and experiences are overlooked. A group of cartoonists and the White River Junction VA have a plan to change that.

On a recent spring evening, the White River Junction VA is buzzing as women veterans share their stories – some for the first time – with cartoonists from the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Together, they will create a cartoon strip about women's experiences in the military.

Sarah Nolin, who was in the Navy, is among them.

“I was active duty for nine years and I've been a reservist ever since, so I have about 20 years total,” she said.

Flipping through a scrapbook, she added, “this book that [we're] looking at is actually a photo album of my Afghanistan deployment in 2012 and 2013.”

Nolin points out pictures of herself to artist JD Lunt as he quickly sketches, working to get the details of her uniform just right. “That's quite the outfit!” he said, pointing out one of Nolin’s many rifles.

Cartoonist Kurt Shaffert sketches mother and son pair. They discuss what it was like as a military family and for a mother raising a son as they traveled.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

Lunt, a cartoonist, helped spearhead this project.

After doing a previous book with the VA about veterans' issues called "When I Returned," he noticed that there were no women portrayed within his work.

So he set out to change that.

“These are stories that we know aren't heard nearly enough, especially in the culture that we're swimming in right now. To ... amplify that voice and share that voice,” Lunt told the group, “and to get to do what we love, which is making comics, sharing these important stories, is just the biggest honor.”

"These are stories that we know aren't heard nearly enough, especially in the culture that we're swimming in right now ." — JD Lunt, cartoonist

The stories vary.

A mother and son share their stories about traveling in the military.

Nurses describe their deployments in Vietnam with levity.

JD Lunt, cartoonist, sketches Gioia Cattabriga. She was in the military for 10 years and told him stories about sexual assaults she witnessed during her time serving.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

But other stories are darker, like that of Gioia Cattabriga, who served for 10 years between the '70s and '80s. She says her biggest threat in during that time was not the enemy, but her male peers.

“I hated the everyday politics and the fact that women were blamed for so much. And we were really resented, I think, and regarded as freaks,” she told one illustrator. “When I came home on leave, people that knew me in my hometown said, 'You know there are only two kinds of women that join the service: whores and lesbians. Which one are you?'”

"People that knew me in my hometown said, 'You know there are only two kinds of women that join the service: whores and lesbians. Which one are you?'" — Gioia Cattabriga, a veteran who served in the 70s and 80s

That's part of the reason why Carey Russ, the women's program manager at the White River Junction VA, co-wrote a grant application to the VA Innovators Network to fund the project.

“Women still feel invisible,” she said. "They still feel like their stories aren't heard and their experiences aren't heard. And they often tell me people still don't know that women are in the military and that women are veterans.”

The women will continue to meet with cartoonists throughout the year, and together they will create a series of illustrated stories that will be shared with VA women's programs around the country.

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