Women comprise 15% of active-duty military and 18% of the National Guard and Reserve. As more and more women sign up to serve their country, there are also more women stepping into leadership roles after their time in the military is over.
Ashley Bratton is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. An Army Captain during her seven years of active duty, she was promoted to Major during her latter years in the Reserve. After serving in Germany, two tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, and living at numerous Army bases across the country, the Huntington native moved home in 2013.
When she was invited to a Memorial Day service at VFW Post No. 1836 in Lufkin, Bratton was once again enlisted for duty.
“After the service was over, (a fellow veteran) walked me into this room and said, ‘She’s signing up for the VFW.’ I didn’t even realize what was happening,” Bratton said, laughingly.
However, even then, the VFW post faced difficulties.
“The problem is we’re not just supposed to be surviving, we’re supposed to be trying to help veterans and provide programs and services. Even just giving people a place where there is some camaraderie. There wasn’t a whole lot of that going on,” Bratton said.
In early 2018, with their VFW chapter being threatened, a vote was made to sell the facility and relocate. Attendance had dwindled considerably and the former post commander and quartermaster had stepped down.
Bratton was a single mom with two young kids, had a full-time job as a financial adviser at Edward Jones and was serving on the board of the Mosaic Center. To save the organization from going under, she volunteered and was elected as Post Commander.
They decided to stay in their current location on Ford Chapel Road, and over the past year and a half, Bratton said they’ve worked to build membership, host more events and fundraisers and make sure the community knows they’re still here.
“The message that most people got was that the VFW wasn’t going to exist anymore,” she said. “We’re just trying to turn that message around and say that we really are here, and we’re trying.”
Ultimately, the nonprofit organization would like to move past the point of merely surviving and begin to fulfill their overall goal of better serving veterans.
“It presents challenges. With an organization like this, inevitably what happens is you’ve got people who are passionate and want to help; they just don’t always all agree what help is and what that should look like.
“Not to say anything about old men but ... sometimes they’re set in their ways,” Bratton said with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s just talking through all that, and sometimes it’s trying to mediate. Of course, it’s been frustrating at times; I’d be lying if I didn’t say otherwise, but at the same time, you do still see that people are willing to help, and that’s good.”
Transitioning to civilian life can be especially challenging, whether or not a veteran served during peacetime or war. The VFW gives veterans a sense of belonging, a common language and a safe place to talk about their experiences with those who’ve been there, too.
“When it’s Army-Navy time, and we need to talk bad about the Navy, then I’ve got someone I can do that with,” Bratton said. “There are some of those cultural things that carry over from the military that civilians just don’t understand. That goes back to that camaraderie and that connection. Hopefully, ultimately, that’s what we can provide as an organization.”
More than just reviving the local veterans group, Bratton is putting yet another face on female leadership in the VFW. More and more headlines each year read that women have filled top VFW roles across the country. In fact, the state’s VFW post commander in 2018-19 was also a woman.
“I can’t tell you how many stories that you hear about women who society still doesn’t see as veterans. It’s so insane to me,” Bratton said. “The men here have been so respectful of me, whether it’s because I’m commander or not, I don’t know, but you can understand that at times with a woman in charge that might cause more of a disruption or a problem. I have nothing but bragging stories to say about these guys because they’ve been super accepting and understanding of me.”