ORLANDO, Fla. — For Valerie Tutt Harvey, her service in the U.S. Navy feels like a lifetime ago.
“I came in, in the dark ages. So, it was not a chivalrous Navy,” she said. “It was a man's Navy," Harvey said.
It’s one she would sometimes rather forget.
“A lot of times, I didn't tell people I served,” she said.
Years after her service, though, she’s opened up and found a new community of women whose story is not unlike her own.
“We are a very unique community within a community,” Harvey said.
It’s a community called WoVeN, which stands for Women Veterans Network. The idea for it took shape five years ago from Boston University professors Tara Galovski and Amy Street.
“After they separate from service, it’s really hard to find other women veterans,” Galovski said. “So, we said, ‘Well, what about if we built a platform for them to get together and meet one another and connect and develop that comradery and unit cohesion that they had really enjoyed during their military service.'”
That’s where WoVeN comes in: now 4,000 women strong, they are located in every state in the country and bring together women veterans in small groups to share experiences and network with one another.
“One of the things that’s amazing to watch as part of woven is the way women veterans from all different walks of life come together,” Street said. “They served in all different branches and all different eras, they’re all different ages.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are more than 2 million women veterans across the country. They are the fastest-growing group of veterans, making up just 4% of all veterans back in 2000, but now at 10%. The number of women veterans is expected to continue rising, reaching 18% by 2040.
WoVeN brings them together initially for 90 minutes a week for eight weeks. Harvey remembers her first meeting.
“We sat down in a room with 16 other women, it was like, ‘Okay, we know they're all veterans.’ My first concept was they are alpha females because we're veterans,” she said, laughing as she recalled, “and I don't know how this is going to go.”
However, she said she found a sisterhood she didn’t know she was missing.
“It made me feel, like, validated,” she said. “WoVeN validates who I am as a female veteran.”
It’s a feeling WoVeN’s founders say they see over and over again.
“They come together and find a sense of community, with other women who have shared some part of their life experience,” Street said.
Having grown from a participant in WoVeN, to a group leader, Harvey said she found a place to share that connection with women who understand her experiences first-hand.
“I'm here for you. You are my sister. I am your sister - and I can support you,” she said. “And you don't know it, but you are supporting me - and I certainly appreciate it.”