Female veterans reflect on their service

Hannah Grover
Sherilynne Juan, who served in the U.S. Army for eight years, poses for a photo on Friday at Minium Park in Aztec.

FARMINGTON — After eight years in the U.S. Army, Sherilynne Juan has a unique respect for veterans and the importance of Veterans Day.

“For me, I think that every day should be recognized as Veterans Day,” said the Aztec resident in an interview last week.

While the country will honor veterans on Wednesday, Juan said the men and women who serve often do not get enough recognition at other times of the year.

“Our men and women of the armed forces give their lives every day,” she said.

Juan is among the approximately 10 percent of veterans in New Mexico who are women, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Nationwide, a similar percentage of veterans are women, but Veterans Affairs thinks that will change in the next few decades.

The department expects the overall number of veterans to decline to approximately 14 million nationwide by 2040. But it also project the percentage of female veterans will increase to more than 17 percent by that same year.

Part of that increase can be attributed to cultural shifts. A ban that prevented women from serving in combat roles in the armed forces was lifted in 2013.

That same ban led some men to downplay the importance of female veterans, said Candice Pioche-Zunie, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served from 2002 to 2006. The Farmington woman said she struggled with the perception during her service.

Candice Pioche-Zunie, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, speaks on July 2 at a meeting for the "Honoring Our Women Veterans Walk" at Chef Bernie's in Farmington.

"They still think the women's role is in the kitchen," she said.

If the ban hadn't been in place when she was serving, Juan said she would have tried to serve in a combat role in the Army. Juan grew up hearing stories of military service from her aunts and her grandfather, and that influenced her decision to join the Army, even though it was against her parents’ wishes.

She enlisted in her second semester at New Mexico State University in September 1997.

“I didn’t even tell them until two weeks before I was leaving,” she said of her parents.

Juan first served in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Her duties were primarily to act as support for the Special Forces. This included warehouse work, motor pool duties and getting parts for the military vehicles.

She also traveled to Thailand, Korea, Africa, Puerto Rico and Egypt with a unit that built infrastructure and trained foreign troops overseas.

Sherilynne Juan holds a photo of herself in her Army uniform on Friday at her home in Aztec.

When Juan re-enlisted in 2001, she was promoted to a supervisor position and stationed in Fort Wainwright in Alaska.

Her experience there, she said, was entirely different. Her unit of about 200 people had only three women, including her.

Juan said certain male members of the unit bullied her, assigning her more work than the others. When the unit went on its  six-mile runs, some of the men tried to run so fast that she could not keep up. But, Juan said, that only pushed her. She said she always tried to go faster to keep up with them.

“I didn’t want them to think that they were getting to me,” she said.

Despite a few negative experiences, Juan said her years in the Army had a positive influence on her life, teaching her values like selfless service and honor. Those are things she said she wants to pass along to her two daughters.

Pioche-Zunie said she also struggled with gender discrimination in the Air Force and felt she needed to prove to her male counterparts that she could do the job.

"I always loved to prove my male counterpart wrong," she said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

By the numbers

22 million: Veterans in the U.S.

172,000: Veterans in New Mexico

2.02 million: Female veterans in the U.S.

17,000: Female veterans in New Mexico

9.95 million: Veterans 65 and older in the U.S.

77,000: Veterans 65 and older in New Mexico

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs