Brittany Grippi served six years in the U.S. Navy as an aviation ordnanceman, maintaining missiles and bombs aboard the USS Carl Vinson Nimitz-class supercarrier.
Jennifer Wiese served as a civil affairs specialist in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command during the 2003 Iraq war.
Belinda Miller describes herself as an introverted middle child, yet she’s served in both in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy.
These three are among six Rochester women who took part in Eyes Front, a new photography and writing program for women combat veterans. Conducted by Flower City Arts Center in partnership with the Rochester Vet Center, the 12-week program took place this spring to empower women veterans to discover and share their stories. Out of it came the book “First Light” and an exhibition, which can be seen at Image City Photography Gallery on 722 University Ave. until Sept. 1.
Women compose 16 percent of U.S. enlisted forces, up from 2 percent at the end of the draft in 1973, the Council on Foreign Relations reports.
Three thousand female veterans reside in Upstate New York, according to figures supplied by Rep. Joseph Morelle’s office from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Combat veterans make up a smaller part of that population.
In Rochester as elsewhere, women who have served in the military remain largely unacknowledged, advocates say.
“It’s a hidden identity,” Wiese says. “We don’t wear the T-shirts, the veterans’ hats, the combat boots. Seeing us walk down the street, you wouldn’t know we’d served on the battlefield—we’ve returned to our schools, our jobs, our families and life in general. But nobody comes back from war the same.”
Wiese is a married mother of three; her youngest, daughter Rowyn, just turned 11 months. In addition to participating in Eyes Front as a photographer and writer, she served as the program therapist. A licensed master social worker, she works as a readjustment counseling therapist at the Vet Center, a program of the Veteran’s Health Center that specializes in working with combat zone veterans, military sexual trauma victims, and Gold Star families of fallen military members.
“Women coming back from combat, like their brothers in arms, carry with them the experiences, tragedies and losses of war—and they return with added layers of social stereotypes and gender issues,” Wiese says. “Women have always served in the military, but now it’s in greater numbers and in more active combat roles. We’re just scratching the surface on understanding how women are impacted by this.”
The idea for Eyes Front came from three people who’d been thinking along the same lines for several years.
Floyd Gibson is a Vietnam veteran and Vet Center volunteer who also volunteers with Flower City Arts Center programs for middle-school students.
“I know what photography means to me, to get me through tough times,” Gibson says. “It’ a great tool. It’s therapeutic.”
Instructor Sharon Turner, former photography director at Flower City, is a longtime teacher of the organization’s youth programs.
“We decided we wanted to offer a program for women veterans specifically because they often feel invisible,” Turner says. “This gave them an opportunity to talk about whatever they wanted to.”
Instructor and program organizer Megan Charland, director of photography and digital arts at Flower City, comes from a military family; her grandfather, and many of her uncles and cousins, have served.
It took the team two years to raise the $15,000 to launch Eyes Front. Funders included the Rochester Area Community Foundation; a Humanities New York Action Grant supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities; Women’s Club of Pittsford; Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va.; and Puffin Foundation West, LTD. Film was donated by Kodak Alaris. Flower City is soliciting donations to repeat the program next year.
Recognizing that exploring combat experiences could raise challenging emotions, the program team collaborated with therapist Wiese to create a safe space. Charland means that literally. Darkrooms can be small and cramped. The number of participants was limited to keep anxiety levels down.
“It was visible,” Charland says. “They got tense if they were too close together in that dark space.”
Participants learned how to use a 35mm film camera, shot pictures at home and in the community, developed their own black-and-white darkroom prints, and matted and framed two photographs each for the exhibition. Turner and Charland taught the photography portion. Instructor Karen vanMeenen provided writing prompts.
“Have you ever felt so much/that you felt nothing?” participant Miller wrote. “Can you see me?/Do you see me?/Will you see me?/Your validation is no longer required./I am Me. And that’s good enough.”
Opening night was the first time the women could see their work completed and mounted.
Grippi arrived with her extended family: father, mother, grandmother, friend, and twin sister. She recently received her bachelor’s degree and is moving to Tampa, Fla., to earn a master’s degree in accounting. Standing outside of Image City as gallery visitors strolled in and out, she says the First Light experience changed how she sees the world.
“I didn’t know I liked photography,” Grippi says. “It teaches you how to look at things differently. Stones, trees, flowers—there are 100 good pictures I could take on this block right now.”
More than that, she says, the program connected her with an overlooked but vital community of Rochester women.
“They’ve been in full deployment—in Iraq, in the desert, in war,” Grippi says. “They’re the nicest people in the world and they’re complete badasses. They’re soldiers and students and workers and mothers.”
E.C. Salibian is Rochester Beacon senior editor.