VA Maryland Health Care System
Women Warriors Honored
March is National Women's History month and Erika Gillespie, a woman warrior, a mother, and a Veteran, is making history along with the more than 1.8 million Women Veterans in the U.S.
There are currently 47,276 women Veterans in Maryland, but across the nation, women Veterans comprise the fastest growing subpopulation of Veterans. The number of women Veterans is projected to be more than 10 percent of the Veteran population by 2020. These statistics are historic, with the more than 350,000 women in today's armed forces assuming leadership roles and responsibilities impossible for them to attain 20 or 30 years ago. Women are also proving their courage as soldiers at a time when front lines are no longer defined, and as of Feb. 1, 2011, 137 service women have died in defense of our nation since 9/11.
If you talk to Ericka Gillespie, age 40 and a lifelong Baltimorean, she will tell you she loves and misses her airplanes. While in Iraq, Gillespie, a former Army Sergeant, served as a generator and airplane mechanic, specifically working on the Shadow 200 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for the U.S. Army. She laughs when she tells you, "The first time I spilled oil all over myself, I cried and called my grandfather in Baltimore from Iraq and told him what I'd done. She'll also tell you that if one of those drone planes crashed, she and her unit had to get into a jeep to go look for and recover it, regardless of its location. "People think of them as large models, but they're real airplanes with engines that require fuel and each one is worth about $750,000."
Gillespie, who was injured in an Improvised Explosive Device blast and med-evaced to Germany, insisted she be sent back to her unit so she could finish her job. Her tour in Iraq ended in 2005. Now wheelchair bound, Gillespie was recognized for her service and represented all of Maryland's returning Veterans since 9/11 during the VA's Valentine's for Veterans Concert featuring Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Charlie Thomas Drifters on Feb. 12 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Women have been playing an essential role in the U.S. Army since 1776, and the percentage of women in the military has doubled in the last 30 years. Like Gillespie, an increasing number of women who return home from military duty as combat Veterans today return to their roles as wives, mothers, sisters and friends. Their needs are complex and sometimes different from those who served and deployed before them.
When Gillespie joined the Army at age 17 in 1987 after graduating from Woodlawn High School, she didn't expect to be repairing either airplanes or generator engines and loving every minute. That part didn't happen right away. In fact, Gillespie worked in supply units, participated in Dessert Storm in 1990 and served five years before obtaining an honorable discharge in 1992 at age 22.
Gillespie then spent five years as a civilian, working at UPS and FedEx, but sorely missed the military life. She re-enlisted at age 27 in 1997, losing one rank. Undeterred, she welcomed new training as a generator and airplane mechanic, and within four years attained the rank of sergeant. Deployed to Iraq in 2004, Gillespie was injured in early 2005, but completed her tour.
"I can't say enough good things about the care I'm getting from the VA Maryland Health Care System. The first thing that struck me was that the clinicians all knew my name before I even arrived. They were expecting me and familiar with my case," said Gillespie, who was grateful that she didn't have to explain everything from the beginning again. "The Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom staff members and the employees in the Polytrauma Clinic treated all my issues, helped me set up all my appointments, and assisted with the transition from solider to civilian," she said.
The VA Maryland Health Care System offers its women warriors a full spectrum of services, including breast and cervical cancer screenings, gynecological evaluation and treatment, and in-house mammography and bone density screens. Constantly adding and improving services, the health care system recently began offering the human papilloma virus vaccine to younger women Veterans. The VA Maryland Health Care System currently has14 women's health care providers and two surgeons who provide gender specific care to women Veterans, with plans to expand this number. Eight of the nine locations, which include six community based outpatient clinics, offer gender-specific providers and services. Gender specific services such as maternity care and pelvic oncologic surgical care that are not available from VA can be outsourced to local providers.