SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Roughly two million women Veterans are making an impact in communities across the United States every day.
Often, some feel they don’t get the recognition they deserve for serving their country. A campaign from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is hoping to change that through photos and stories.
The Sioux Falls VA Medical Center is best known for providing health care to Veterans in the region but today, it’s focusing on a different aspect of supporting local heroes.
“That’s outside of my realm. Not something I normally do. I was an expert on the moves so watch out,” Henderson said.
This professional photoshoot is not usually part of Michelle Henderson’s workday. The Air Force Veteran who now works as a Veterans Service Representative is taking part in the “I Am Not Invisible” campaign.
“This is a national campaign. It’s great that we can show what female Veterans are and how we’re being productive in the civilian side too,” Henderson said.
The photographer asking Vets to strike a pose is Gene Russell. He’s the personal photographer for U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie and is in town from Washington, D.C.
“Recognizing and honoring women Veterans in photography. It’s a black and white project that is stunning but it tells the story of who these women are and how they served the country,” Russell said.
Russell says the public has a very narrow view sometimes about women in the military. He says they’ve been serving in a number of roles for 100 years.
“We thought that they served one of two ways, that they were a secretary or a nurse. Almost instantly I got the idea and the understanding that they have done every single occupation that you can imagine,” Russell said.
Take Toni Fjerestad for instance. From chemical operations to supply to food service, she did a lot during her nearly three decade career in the Army.
“It’s a funny story. I thought I’d get out and I just love the people. And I love serving my country,” Fjerestad said.
“Not everybody does it. I volunteered. Nobody forced me,” Fjerestad said.
Fjerestad comes from a family of Veterans who live in southeast South Dakota including her niece Brittney Quist. Quist served in the Military Police and other roles in the Army for 13 years. Both now work for the VA in Sioux Falls.
“I have not been a part of a photo shoot. I think it’s a really cool idea to show that there are females in the military and we’re very comparable to males,” Quist said.
“Sometimes we’re overlooked and it’s a real neat thing and I’m proud to be part of it,” Fjerestad said.
The man behind the camera says it’s inspiring to capture their stories.
“Their shoulders go back. Their chin raises up. They get that grin in their eye and on their face. It’s really delightful. It’s really wonderful to share in their story for that moment. Long term is is that we’re putting images out so that America can see what a women Veteran looks like,” Russell said.
These women believe it’s an important project that people need to learn more about.
“That not everyone is treated equal and that just because of our physical stature that maybe we’re not physically capable of doing certain jobs but that’s been proven wrong,” Henderson said.
“I learned a lot about myself. I’m a lot stronger than I know. My work ethic came from not only growing up on a farm but also my time in the military,” Henderson said.
A disabled Veteran himself, Russell says traveling the country and visiting VA hospitals to do something positive for other Vets is a great gig. His effort and passion comes from a desire to pay homage to one of his own family members.
“Each woman that I’m photographing and honoring, I’m actually honoring my big sister. She served 37.5 years in the United States Navy,” Russell said.
South Dakota is the 46th stop on Russell’s trip that was put on hold for a bit during the pandemic. Now he’s back at it and happy to drop by Sioux Falls.
“We’re really excited to be in South Dakota. We’re really excited to be in Sioux Falls. This is probably one of the premier facilities that I’ve personally been to and it’s a good trip so far,” Russell said.
If you’d like a link to the “I Am Not Invisible” campaign’s website, click here.