The number of women in the military has increased over the years, but it's been only recently that Minnesota has set aside a special state program for women veterans.
This weekend, the state veterans affairs department hosts its first summit catering specifically to women veterans and women actively serving in the military. About 300 women are expected at the event, which takes place Friday night and all day Saturday in Bloomington.
The summit is a product of the state's women veterans program, which was established in July 2008. There's designated funding for the program, including for a staff person who coordinates programming and helps women veterans navigate the VA benefits system.
At the summit, women veterans and military members will hear a motivational speaker, get a chance to socialize and network with other women, and learn about topics ranging from post traumatic stress disorder to how to benefit from the VA's home loan program. The summit is free and is also open to wives of military members.
"We really want this to be a jumping off point," said Sarah Graves, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. "Making those connections is key to supporting this community."
An estimated 23,000 women veterans live in Minnesota. Although the number of women on active-duty in Minnesota wasn't available, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said 200,000 women currently serve in the military.
Knowing that the number of women veterans is expected to keep rising as they return from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, state veterans affairs officials hope to offer the summit every year, Graves said. While the main goal is to make sure women veterans and service members know about the benefits they've earned, Graves said it's also a good place for the women to spend time with others like them.
"The best support for a woman who just returned from service is probably another woman who had a similar experience," she said. "We're trying to facilitate that."