Exhibit helps female vets find ‘an actual me’
Maggie Kenworthy’s photographs feature trees and a white picket fence, a horse peering out of a barn window and a shack in the woods.
But the image I was most struck by is a self-portrait in which Kenworthy stands behind a tree, a grim, haunted expression on her face. The pictures Kenworthy took of her own shadow — a tall, thin, even mysterious figure — are also impressive.
I asked Kenworthy about her self-portraits.
“I’m trying to get to know who I am,” she explained. “I lost myself in substance abuse. … I’m a shadow of myself. But there is an actual me.”
Kenworthy’s work is featured in an exhibit called “Female Veterans Speak” hosted by the Orenda Yoga & Healing Arts Center in Schenectady.
The exhibit showcases the writing and photography of six female veterans who took a 12-week course sponsored by a statewide organization called the Workforce Development Institute. WDI provided the women with cameras and instruction, with the idea that they would learn to express themselves and share their experiences through the arts. But the class helped the women in other ways.
“It was like a big therapy session,” Kenworthy said.
I don’t have a military background, but I’ve become interested in the challenges veterans face when they return to civilian life. Reports of higher rates of homelessness, joblessness, substance abuse, brain injury and suicide trouble me. And among female veterans, such problems are often amplified.
Women are more likely to have been raped in the military than men, with one in five saying that they experienced military sexual trauma during their service. They are also more likely to feel disconnected from their local VA and fellow veterans; Kate Dahlstedt, who co-directs the Troy-based organization Soldier’s Heart, which provides counseling to veterans, once told me that women are “harder to reach than even the male vets.”
Perhaps this is because when most people think of men when they think of military veterans. But women comprise about 10 percent of all veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
My overall feeling is that all veterans need more support when they return home.
We hear a lot about honoring veterans, but as a society we often fail to provide them with the help and resources they need to adapt to life outside the military. Over the years, I’ve interviewed far too many veterans who have sought refuge at homeless shelters and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, as well as veterans who have been plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, debilitating injuries and other problems.
When I spoke to some of the women whose work is featured in “Female Veterans Speak” during a reception on Sunday, they told me they often feel invisible.
“People don’t look at a woman as a veteran,” said Wendy York, an Otego resident who served in the Air Force between 1974 and 2008 and spent time in Bosnia and Saudi Arabia, flying troops out of Iraq.
York said she makes a point of wearing an Air Force veteran pin on her shirt so that people know she’s a vet. “Male vets can always wear a hat, and people will walk up and shake their hands and thank them,” she said.
A native of Clifton Park who comes from a military family, Kenworthy, 50, served in the Air Force between 1984 and 1989.
Like many veterans, she struggled to find her footing when she returned home. Her parents and a brother had died. She spent six years couch surfing before entering rehab for a substance abuse problem. After a stay at a halfway house, she moved into Guardian House, a home for homeless veterans in Ballston Spa that opened two years ago. Today she takes classes in chemical dependency counseling at Schenectady County Community College, works as a housecleaner and is preparing to move out of Guardian House and live on her own.
“I’ve been sober for three years,” Kenworthy told me.
Colonie resident Penny McInnis, 58, also spoke highly of her time in the Army, despite being a survivor of military sexual trauma.
“I’m from a little country town in [the Schoharie Valley],” McInnis said. “The Army was my way out. I would have married a farmer and had 10 kids if I didn’t join the Army.”
But when McInnis retired in 1995, she wanted nothing to do with the military and “cut ties.” Health problems eventually brought her back into the fold. She’s now a regular at Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, where she attends music therapy sessions and visits the women’s wellness center that opened in 2011.
McInnis also spoke of the WDI class as therapy.
“It was like a shell had been broken,” she told me. “And all this creativity came pouring out of me.”
“Female Veterans Speak” is a small exhibit, but it’s definitely worth a look.
The photos often capture the tiny, seemingly mundane details of everyday life, such as a weathered hand gripping a steering wheel in traffic or the view of the street through a triangular pane of glass. The writing is also revealing, as the women reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day and describe their experiences in basic training.
The exhibit deepened my appreciation for veterans. I’m glad I stopped by the yoga studio.
“Female Veterans Speak” will reopen to the general public from noon to 4 p.m. on Dec. 7. Private groups interested in viewing the exhibit can contact Andrea Fortuin, Orenda’s director, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sara Foss, a Gazette columnist, can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.