Camilla Zimbal wants other North Texas women who have served their country in the military to come out of the shadows.
That's why the Vietnam veteran is spearheading the formation of a Denton chapter of Women Veterans of America. Zimbal said she's proud to act as commander of the new group, Chapter 48.
"So many women get out of the military and they just go on with their lives. They don't get involved with veterans groups. We want to change that," Zimbal said.
Zimbal sat around a table at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2205 in Denton, where a small group of women gathered for a regular meeting.
Women Veterans of America is an organization that advocates for women veterans' rights, issues and benefits. Zimbal said a local chapter can be a way for Denton County women veterans to socialize as well as to advocate for women who have served and those who are still serving.
"Women disassociate from their service," said Cassie Winslow, vice commander of the newly formed chapter. Winslow served in Iraq as a Marine. "Women need a safe place to go. When you come back from the military, you get sucked up into the mommy role, or whatever role there is. There aren't a lot of spaces for women who've served."
Zimbal said 8 percent of American military vets are women.
"By 2020, that number is supposed to go up to 15 percent," Zimbal said. "It's a growing population. For decades, when the men come home from their service, they've had a community through the VFW. They've had the American Legion.
"Now, I've been a veteran for a long time. My experience is a little difference. For women veterans like me, when you walk into the VFW or American Legion Hall, they weren't totally sure what to do with the women vets. They pointed us toward the Ladies Auxiliary."
Zimbal has nothing but praise for the women in the auxiliaries. But the women in auxiliaries are overwhelmingly wives of servicemen. They served their country, too, by supporting their husbands during deployment.
"The auxiliaries are great and they do good work. They aren't able to meet the needs of women veterans, though," Zimbal said.
Eva Fulton, a chaplain who served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, said women veterans need a social network of sisters who have served. Some, she said, need help transitioning back into civilian life. Veterans who have lived on military bases -- where housing and other costs are paid for by the government -- can get overwhelmed when they return to civilian life.
"I didn't self-identify as a veteran," Fulton said. "I came back, and I got my education. I was getting $424 a month with four kids and a husband who was on the road a lot working construction."
Fulton said she had trouble trying to apply food stamp benefits for her growing family.
"I missed an appointment because I didn't have a car," she said. "Nobody told me I could have had a telephone appointment to talk to someone about my benefits."
Fulton started sharing her story as a veteran, and gradually made connections with other women veterans. She created a Facebook group for local female veterans, and joined Zimbal in starting Chapter 48 of the national group.
Fulton said she and the other servicewomen she knows are proud to have served along with so many men. Like Zimbal, though, she found the military lacking in connecting with and serving women veterans.
"This has nothing to do with feminism or sexism," Fulton said. "This is about getting women to self-identify as veterans. And there are gender-specific needs. Yeah, there are more women going into the military, but it's still sometimes hard to find a woman at the VFW who has shared your experiences. It's hard to find another woman who knows what it's like."
Zimbal said the military is still struggling to serve women veterans who are also survivors of military sexual trauma.
"If you're a survivor of military sexual trauma, what is it going to like to show up at a the VFW? Who's going to be there? That doesn't feel like a safe place for a lot of military sexual trauma survivors," she said.
Winslow said that women veterans who struggle with addiction and homelessness already have fewer shelter options in North Texas. Some shelters only accept male veterans.
"A lot of women veterans who are homeless don't want to go to the shelters they can get into, either, because they can be assaulted at shelters," Winslow said.
Winslow said servicewomen are also susceptible to the depression and anxiety that afflict their brothers in the service.
"The suicide rate for servicewomen is six times higher than for civilian women," Winslow said, citing government research released in 2015. "That's why it's important for women to feel like they have a safe place to go."
Zimbal said the new chapter will support women who need help, but she has high hopes for bringing women together to celebrate their service, and the mutual love of their country.
"We can't underestimate the importance of the social part of this," she said. "Camaraderie is so important to veterans. I'm a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and I've seen men in tears, saying the VVA saved their lives. I think the WVA can be that for women who have served."
The chapter meets at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at VFW Post 2205, 909 Sunset St. Any woman who is in the military, or who has served in the military, the reserves, the Coast Guard or the National Guard is welcome to attend the meetings. The chapter has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dentonwva. For more information, call 214-502-4154.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
FEATURED PHOTO: Members and officers of Texas' first and only chapter of Women Veterans of America include, from left: an unidentified member of the chapter; Cassie Winslow, vice commander; Camilla Zimbal, commander, and Eva Fulton, chaplain. Chapter 48, the new Denton group, meets at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2205 in Denton. (Jake King/DRC)