INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - "I Am Not Invisible" is the name of the Department of Veterans Affairs photo project highlighting and honoring the nearly two million female veterans in America.
About 100 women from all branches of the military registered to have their photos taken at VFW Post 1587 on Wednesday. But these veterans say for them, having their portraits taken was much more than just a photoshoot.
For U.S. Army veteran Vicky LeMasters, it took nearly 50 years before she was recognized for her service.
"It's been a long time," she said with a heavy sigh.
Having served in the 1970s, LeMasters said with eyes full of emotion, that for her, today was about "the acknowledgement."
LeMasters said for her, serving is about "giving back to the country. You don't realize what you have."
"We're so very fortunate (in this country, as Americans) and people don't realize it," she added with a deep thoughtfulness that seemed to reflect her understanding of what it took to keep Americans free.
The veterans who came to have their photos taken spanned generations, wars, branches, ranks and experiences. They all sacrificed for their nation.
"When I put on that uniform, it meant honor," said U.S. Air Force veteran Lisa Wilken. "It developed a great sense of pride and accomplishment for being able to serve alongside our brothers and to be treated equally."
"I still have it (my uniform) displayed in my closet. I still have all my awards. I went to serve my county. I love my country. And I would do it all over again," said U.S. Air Force veteran Tonia Vincent, who served during the Iraq War.
Although one in six service members is a woman, many of these veterans shared similar anecdotes of invisibility.
"When you're seen at the doctor, the first thing they ask the males is, 'Are you here to see the doctor?' They ask my husband that and he says 'No, my wife is the veteran.' So it's still a shock, 'til today, that we have female veterans," said Vincent.
But today, these service members have come together to take a stand.
"I'm a war veteran, Iraqi War veteran, so things I've been through, it's important for me to let people know, I'm still standing. I'm not invisible," she said with pride.
The portraits are a documentation and a tribute to our female service members.
"We need to continue to promote the service of women veterans. Until we get more stories of women in service, in fiction and nonfiction, we will continue to be invisible. So this is a great opportunity," said Wilken.
The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA and VFW Post 1587 agree and that's why they hosted this "I Am Not Invisible" photo shoot in Indianapolis.
"It's a part of the Center for Women Veterans outreach program acknowledging and honoring women veterans," said Gene Russell, the primary photographer for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who is based out of Washington D.C.
"Indianapolis is about our 46th city and our 35th state. And we're up into the 2,000 range of women veterans we've honored," said Russell. "The goal of the Center of Women Veterans is to photograph in all 50 states and to have those images tour around the states in libraries and federal buildings and VA buildings. So that we can honor these women and we can teach America how all of us served," added Russell.
A veteran himself, Russell said his interaction with the women veterans through the "I Am Not Invisible" project has changed how he serves.
"I think the way it's changed how I serve my country, knowing that they were my teammates throughout the history of the military, has changed my aspect of my service," he said, tapping his right hand to his heart.
"I spent some time in Ohio with one of my battle buddies and when we were in the infantry in 1983, we were talking to each other that when we were in the infantry, when we were in basic training, in our service unit, we did not see a women in any capacity. Although, many women served in that time," he said with dismay.
"Now I'm listening to the younger servicewomen, who are coming in telling me the various and different jobs they had in the military. So my service has changed that I have a broader outlook," he said, panning his hands outward.
"This whole thing for military service and me and my family is my big sister, Deborah," said Russel. "She was a captain in the United States Navy. She retired the year before last with 37 1/2 years of service. So to have that woman as my military hero, that gave me the foundation, to understand that anybody can do and be anything," said Russell.
And that is exactly what many of the veterans who are also mothers, want their children to know as well.
"It's important to me that (my son) knows mom has done the same things that dad has done," said U.S. Army veteran Geraldine Straber. "It just lets him know that women can do many different things, and there's no cap on what we can do."
LeMasters said she has only felt recognized for her service in the last five or six years. She served in the 1970s. For her, being a part of the "I Am Not Invisible" project is her way of saying along with her comrades, "We're here and we're not going anywhere," she said with a chuckle.
Being honored during the photo shoot made Vincent "feel important. It made me feel like I'm worth it," she said.
Vincent also hopes that a bill aiming to designate June 12 as "Women Veterans Appreciation Day," will pass.
"It'll say women veterans have arrived. We have a day. And we can get things and information that are significant to women veterans. Because there's a lot of things (services) that women veterans don't know. It's an opportunity to get information and say, 'this is a day for us,'" said Vincent.
For these female veterans who rarely hear "Thank you for your service," it's an opportunity to feel the gratitude from a grateful nation.