PORTLAND — Four years ago, a woman attending the Oregon Women's Veteran Conference took the lunch served straight to the parking lot. She'd been living in her GMC truck and her son, recently out of the Job Corps, was waiting outside, hungry.
A conference organizer followed the woman and after talking, encouraged her to continue her decades-long fight for veterans disability benefits. At the 2010 conference today and Saturday, that veteran, Judy Kettner, will speak on being homeless and her successful claim for benefits and put her in permanent housing.
"I want women veterans to know there is help out there, and tell them don't give up," said Kettner, 57.
Nearly 400 Oregon women who have served in the military are scheduled to gather today and Saturday at Seven Feathers Resort and Casino in Canyonville.
Veterans attending this weekend's conference will see the documentary "Lioness" on the first women in the Army to serve in ground combat. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is also scheduled to address the gathering. And workshops have been organized around three topics most requested by women vets: benefits, employment and military sexual trauma.
The number of women veterans nationwide has swelled during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with women making up 14 percent of 1.5 million active duty forces — 209,000 — and 15 percent of the National Guard — 71,000 or about 472,000, according to the Departments of Defense and Coast Guard.
Women are serving in the Gulf War in intelligence, driving trucks and leading combat engineers dismantling bombs. At least 123 women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, three of them with ties to Oregon.
Spc. Michelle Ring, a 26-year-old mother of two who grew up partly in McMinnville, was killed by shrapnel while on guard duty in Baghdad on July 5, 2007. Cpl. Jessica Ellis, 24, of Baker City, was a combat medic who died during her second tour of Iraq when the vehicle she was riding in hit a roadside bomb on May 11, 2008.
Pvt. First Class Erin McLyman, 26, who grew up in Eugene, was married and lived in Federal Way, Wash. She was serving as a mechanic with a Stryker Brigade when she died March 13 after a mortar hit her base in Balad.
Kettner, who lives in Fairview, said she'd served in the Air Force 10 years and intended to make it a career when she was permanently disabled during an attempted rape on her military post. She landed on her right kneecap in the struggle, underwent three surgeries and was in a cast for a year. She was discharged in 1983, earned an associates degree and went to work for the Forest Service. But between her bad knee and unemployment, she lost her house, and wound up living out of her truck with her German Shepherd, "Smoochie." She said she continued to work at temporary jobs and as a day laborer but was never able to cobble together enough cash to cover first and last months' rent. With documentation she had kept, she was able to finally prove her VA claim in 2007.
She'll head to Canyonville, 25 miles south of Roseburg, with raffle gifts she collected to raise money for other women. Her sons, now grown, plan to hear her speak.
Val Conley, womens' veteran coordinator for Oergon who intercepted Kettner at Grand Ronde four years ago, said that the most important feature of the conference is the camaraderie.
"Civilians don't understand," Conley said. "They ask your husband if he's a veteran, but they don't ask you. Here, the women understand one another. It's like a two day retreat where we can just talk about our experiences."