Editor’s note: The article has been updated to make it clear that Sierra Nelson is a Purple Heart recipient. She also hooked a salmon shark.
When Homer Elks 2127 invited members of the Wounded Warrior Project (individuals with service-related injuries) to Homer earlier this year, Homer Emblem Club 350 President Peggy Parsons wondered why only men and no women responded.
“There’s few that are wounded,” Parsons was told. “So, I said, let me do some checking and maybe Emblem could do a group of women vets.”
On Friday, Sept. 21, that’s exactly what happened. Six women — some of them active duty United States Army, some veterans — arrived from Ft. Wainwright near Fairbanks for a weekend of exploring the southern Kenai Peninsula.
“I don’t think any of us had been to Homer before,” said Jessica McCargish, a medic who served in Afghanistan. Having made the Wounded Warriors trip to the peninsula, McCargish’s supervisor urged her to take advantage of the invitation. “He was talking about how great everybody was and how I had to go.”
Arriving with McCargish were Sierra Nelson, Cynthia Nelson, Deidra Neeley, Monserrat Guzman and Kaley Maben. Wounded in Afghanistan, Sierra Nelson and Neeley are Purple Heart recipients. Guzman and Maben have chosen to make a career of their military service.
The weekend itinerary included lodging at Ocean Shores Motel provided by owner Mike Warburton, and Parsons’ husband offered a sightseeing tour of Kachemak Bay. The women also enjoyed dinner at Captain Pattie’s and a visit to the Salty Dawg Saloon. Eric Lehm of Maverick Charters gave a fishing charter trip and Bart Chow of Homer Fish Processing donated processing of fish the women caught. Bear Creek Winery gifted each of the visitors with a bottle of special-for-veterans wine, “Red, White and Blueberry,” and airfare for the trip was paid by the Elks. In addition to halibut, Sierra Nelson hooked into a salmon shark, the resulting excitement forcing her shipmates to immediately pull in their lines and stand aside as she attempted to subdue her catch.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Sierra Nelson said of the struggle to reel one direction with the shark tugging the other and Nelson’s friends wrapping their arms around her to ensure she stayed on the boat.
After a lengthy tug of war, the shark won, snapping the line and disappearing into the bay’s depths. Local women veterans were invited to join the visiting group for dinner at the Elks on Saturday.
“It was nice to honor this younger generation of females who have followed in our footsteps,” said Eileen Faulkner, who was in the Pentagon when it was attacked by terrorists Sept. 11, 2001, and is retired from the U.S. Air Force. “We had Dottie (Holton, 95, of Homer) there and then there were these young ones in their 20s. … They are veterans and it’s important they get treated the same way the guys do.”
At the end of the evening, Faulkner said she made a point of telling the Fairbanks guests, “Thank you for your service and continuing our legacy.” Holton, who served in the Coast Guard and was stationed in Seattle during World War II, compared women’s role in the military in her day with today’s opportunities.
“We didn’t get to do any of the really interesting things. We filled in at home and the boys did the interesting things,” she said. “However, I think we did do one really good thing: We opened up the ranks so that future women could enlist. They deserve their chance to show that women are just as necessary to the population as the men are. ”
Her message to the visitors was “the only thing I can say: Good luck and be careful,” Holton said. On Sunday, the women met for breakfast at Duncan House, followed by more sightseeing, a visit to Fireweed Gallery and, for some, attending church services. Finally it was time to head to the airport.
“Getting to know others with a veteran background really solidified the camaraderie for me,” said McCargish. “That showed me no matter how many years I serve, there’s always a family available that understands what you’ve been through and that part of your life.”
Parsons is hoping the weekend’s success marks the beginning of more such weekends.
“There were tears from all of us at the airport,” Parsons said. “We had a wonderful time with them. They were great ladies and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. We’re hoping to continue this, doing it again next year.”
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.