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SK honors women in annual Veterans Day festivities

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South Kingstown Veterans Day Parade grand marshals Maija Hill, left, Trica Boucher, second from left, and Jennifer Whitworth, right, participate in a wreath-laying ceremony with Dora Vasquez-Hellner, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Rhode Island, in Saugatucket Park on Nov. 11.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — True to their character, the three women who served as grand marshals in this year’s Veterans Day parade were humble about the honor, even though it was a historic first for the community.

All three are officers with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 916. On Veterans Day they marched in the parade down Main Street and shared the stage at Saugatucket Park with fellow female veterans.

Words like grateful, honored and humbled came up over and over in interviews with the women after the ceremony.

They don’t seek out recognition. But when they get it, each said, it’s important for future generations — especially girls and young women — to see.

“I think it’s important for those young people and those that came before us to recognize what has been done and the sacrifices that were made,” Maija Hills, a junior vice commander with the post, said. Hills served in the Army from 1992 to 1998, providing logistics support. She’s been a member of the VFW for about three years.

Her son is also an Army veteran, and her daughter serves in the U.S. Air Force. Her father was an Air Force veteran as well.

Hills, a member of the Narragansett Tribe, lives in Charlestown but grew up in Narragansett and is appreciative of the tight-knit community and how it unites to support others.

“The community involvement and support from all of those that attended and made it happen was very fulfilling. I’m very grateful for those that took the time and made this happen, and thought that we were worthy of being recognized,” she said. “It’s important for people to see that this is the actual face of the VFW,” an organization made of men and women of many cultures and backgrounds.  

Tricia Boucher, senior vice commander of VFW Post 916, echoed those thoughts.

“I am thankful to be a member of such a supportive community and for the privilege to serve my country,” Boucher, of South Kingstown, said.

She served in the Army and then the Air Force Reserves for 10 years. She went on multiple deployments during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I am grateful for the women trailblazers who served before me and I am in awe of women who are currently serving and continuing to break barriers. I am honored to be able to march in the parade and represent all women warriors past, present and future,” she said.

The ceremony at the park’s veterans memorial featured Rhode Island Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Dora Vasquez-Hellner as the keynote speaker, and retired U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Sarah Cavanaugh, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152 in North Kingstown, as the master of ceremonies.

“Take a moment to recognize all the women veterans in the audience,” Cavanaugh said. “Offer them a special moment for their service.”

Rhode Island Veterans Administration Medical Center Chief of Chaplains Rotunda East said the opening and closing prayers. East is a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant.

Post 916 Quartermaster Jennifer Whitworth, who completed the trio of marshals, said post commander Joe “Tiger” Patrick was their “biggest cheerleader,” and made sure women were properly honored this year for the first time.

Whitworth, of Narragansett, said she has worked for years to change the mindset of male VFW members about the post’s  composition along gender lines. No longer is the VFW the “men’s group” and the auxiliary the “girls group,” she said. Women are very much a part of post activities and structure.

“Tiger has kind of jumped right on that train,” she said. “I was honored, absolutely honored, but it didn’t surprise me and it was really touching that he asked the women he did. It was quite an honor to be there with my female warrior group.”

As quartermaster for the post, she’s in charge of the finances.

“I’m the woman with the power,” she said, laughing.

Whitworth, an Army combat medic, served between 1998 and 2004. She saw many injured soldiers who returned to Walter Reed Hospital from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whitworth, who has children and coaches girls soccer, said she got choked up during moments during the parade and ceremony.

“It was really exciting for the younger generation to be able to see that,” she said. “We understood the significance of it all ... I get to show my children what it’s like to be part of something bigger, to give up part of yourself for others, because that’s what we do.”

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