Pensacola, Florida
Saturday May 25th 2019

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Celebrating Shero Warriors

By Jennifer Leigh

Women make up 25 percent of the U.S. military, says Michelle Caldwell, founder of the Monument to Women Veterans.

Yet, it’s hard to find much recognition for the sacrifice and service of women in the military. And for eight years, Caldwell has been on a mission to change that.

The Monument to Women Veterans is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works to better the lives of veterans through programs that reduce veteran homelessness. The organization has also helped spread awareness about the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military.

“In the past year, there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in military sexual trauma and a 50 percent increase in homeless women veterans,” Caldwell said.

In partnership with the Powerful Women of the Gulf Coast and the Women’s Club of Pensacola, the Monument to Women Veterans is hosting its inaugural SHERO Warrior Conference. The three-day event is not only a fundraiser for the monument but a way for women to network and find purpose after military life.

Partnering with two female-centric organizations has been “very exciting,” Caldwell said, since it brings more voices to the cause. In the year 2020, the Women’s Club of Pensacola will turn 100, and with that milestone, Caldwell said she hopes the monument will be completed.

“The goal is 2020, and we plan to have a dual celebration,” she added.

Alongside the monument, Caldwell is also in the process of establishing a museum dedicated to female veterans. The City of Pensacola has leased the old Amtrak building for $1 per year, which is where the museum will be. Caldwell said she believes both the monument and museum could have a large economic impact on the area.

Caldwell said she wants to create a positive space for women, which is how she envisions the conference. The conference is open to all women, regardless of military background.

“It’s about being a part of the sisterhood,” she said, “showing veteran women and non-veteran women that sisterhood. It’s about empowerment and leadership—empowering to inspire and inspire to empower. Every woman is a hero.”

The SHERO conference kicks off on Friday, March 8, with the “Paint Like a Shero” event featuring wine and Pensacola artist Bev Schoopman. On Saturday, an impressive lineup of guest speakers will be sharing their stories at the Women’s Club of Pensacola, which is located by the site of the future Women Veterans Museum. A block party will follow with food trucks, live music, a silent auction and free beer. The conference will wrap up on Sunday with a champagne brunch at De Luna Winery. Coincidentally, the conference begins on International Women’s Empowerment Day.

“That was a God thing,” Caldwell said.

Women have been serving in the military since the Revolutionary War, yet their contributions have not always been acknowledged.

“I get asked, ‘Are those your husband’s dog tags?’” said Caldwell, who served in the Navy. “I hear from women who said they weren’t in combat, so they weren’t a veteran.”

Caldwell said there needs to be a culture change in the military and, furthermore, how service members are treated when they come home. She remembers volunteering at the Veterans Stand Down event and realizing that the only clothes available to hand out where men’s clothes.

“It’s not that people don’t want to do it, they just don’t think about it,” she said.

Caldwell said she wants to continue to see women rise up in the military ranks, which is part of the reason she’s passionate about the monument. It gives girls and young women something to aspire to.

“I want to recruit that younger generation of women,” she said. “I want to acknowledge the women who have served and are serving now—the past, present and future.”

One question about the monument that has come up a few times is, “Why not Washington, D.C.?” Caldwell said Pensacola has significance because she was stationed here.

“It’s the cradle of aviation,” she said. “Besides, more people come to Florida. I want to expose how amazing Pensacola really is and how welcoming the people are.”

After eight years on her grassroots campaign, Caldwell said she’s optimistic about the future. “God always finishes what he started,” she said. “This has truly been a miracle.”

SHERO WARRIOR CONFERENCE
COST: $150 for three-day tickets, $75 for one-day tickets
DETAILS: sherowarrior.com

PAINT LIKE A SHERO
WHEN: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Friday, March 8
WHERE: De Luna Winery, 116 E. Gonzalez St.

SHERO BLOCK PARTY
WHEN: 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9
WHERE: Women’s Club of Pensacola, 1551 E. Heinberg St.

CHAMPAGNE BRUNCH
WHEN: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Sunday, March 10
WHERE: De Luna Winery, 116 E. Gonzalez St.