On October 6, 2021, Operation HerStory flew 93 women veterans from Chicago to Washington, DC including a tour around the city, as part of a historic all military women’s flight.
Operation HerStory (OHS), an inclusive organization with partners and team members from across all the generations of service and branches of military service, was created by Ginny Narsete, a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve Master Sergeant who served during the Vietnam War, and Elisabeth (Lis) Pennix, a Commander (CDR), Executive Officer, Appellate Judge in the Navy Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA), and Deputy General Counsel at Sloan.
Ginny and Lis got to know each other at the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, where Lis served as General Counsel. When Ginny was Chief of Staff at the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, she would attend meetings for veterans and women were scarce in attendance. She knew she wanted to do something special for women veterans, but it wasn’t until fellow Daughters of the American Revolution members told her about Honor Flights that the perfect idea took off.
OHS approached Honor Flight Chicago in June of 2019 to propose this flight concept. Honor Flight thankfully agreed to manage the logistics of the day and OHS raised the money and found the women to take this historic flight. Previous Honor Flights had one or two women every few flights, though there are more than 7,000 women veterans from the Vietnam War, Korean War and WWII living in Illinois. The problem was finding the women and convincing them to take flight. Ginny and Lis had to recruit their Honor Flight group through word of mouth and enthusiastic outreach due to confidentiality issues.
They formed a unified team of veterans that included 25 volunteers who comprised Operation Herstory, to hit the road to find women veterans for this special inaugural group. Then, when they were all set to go to Washington, the pandemic changed their plans and the Honor Flights for 2020 were cancelled. OHS waited over a year in great anticipation for the flights to resume this October, 2021.
“The significance of this Honor Flight is to bring the women veterans out of invisibility,” Ginny said. “Many of them would say, ‘well, we knew about it but we didn’t think we were included.’ They thought they weren’t important enough. A lot of women just didn’t know or consider themselves veterans because they got married and didn’t complete their tour. I tell them all, you raised your hand just like the men did.”
“This first OHS endeavor was intended to highlight the critical service of women who served during the 1940-1975 era, who did not have equal opportunities as men,” said Lis Pennix. “Their vital contributions were often not recognized, rewarded, or even acknowledged, and sometimes the conditions under which they served were rife with disrespect. We wanted to give them a day of honor with their comrades, to give them a proper ‘Welcome Home,’ and make them visible in a very positive way.”
They were not going to let the pandemic get in their way of celebrating and remembering their service. Ginny describes the OHS Honor Flight as an amazing bonding experience for the 93 women, who ranged from age 63 to104 years old!
Anyone who comes into contact with Ginny or Lis will immediately become excited about their mission of honoring women veterans—a group that is often forgotten, particularly for older veterans.
“They just chatted the entire flight,” Ginny said. “It didn’t matter which service you were in, which job or rank, everyone was interested in each other. We were sisters again. Some of them only lived within a block of each other and found each other on the flight. In the military, there weren’t many of us. You would immediately grasp onto any woman who was there. You would immediately depend on each other and become friends. It was like that all over again.”
Ginny and Lis are grateful to Pritzker Military Foundation, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the McCormick Foundation, the DuPage Foundation, and many individual donors for helping this idea come to fruition.
OHS is also in the congressional record with Brad Schneider, U.S. Representative for Illinois’ 10th Congressional District, due to many women on the flight pushing the issue of representation.
“For generations, the societal picture of what a ‘veteran’ is, is a male war hero who served in a combat role,” Lis Pennix said. “Entire industries have been built around this stereotype. The truth is, for every person in a combat role, there are about 20 people in support roles contributing to their success; personnel in supply, communications, logistics, pay administration, morale and welfare, cooks, construction workers, mail distribution, barbers, physical therapists, nurses, doctors, etc., just to name a few.”
Ginny believes that she was meant to create this organization. Her mother and husband passed away this last year, prompting her to put her all into the project.
“My husband would have wanted to me to keep going and keep Operation HerStory going,” Ginny said. “It wouldn’t have gotten done if we had not been so determined. Our veterans’ stories, men and women alike, need to be told. It’s as simple as that.”
More about Operation HerStory’s Founders
Ginny Narsete spent 30 years in the Air Force reserve, with five years active duty. She started out as a clerk and then became a writer/photojournalist, traveling to more than 40 countries as part of the Public Affairs department. She won many awards for her work. She later worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
“I feel so fortunate that I got to do work I enjoyed during my entire career and now I’m continuing to help people,” Ginny said.
Elisabeth Pennix has a close relationship with CARPLS. When CARPLS was imagining and planning the launch of IL-AFLAN, Lis was consulted as the General Counsel for the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA). In that role, she worked with the CARPLS team to assist in establishing a referral pipeline from IDVA and other veteran-serving organizations for the veterans in need and establishing communication links so that veterans across the region would obtain a free legal service from CARPLS that could change the trajectory of their life.
“The issues most impacting our veterans in need at the time were housing issues, family issues, and financial issues,” Lis said. “CARPLS designed their program to assist with these issues, whether it was an eviction, a family law issue, or a consumer issue. I’m so proud of CARPLS and IL-AFLAN for their targeted and impactful work for our veterans.”
Congratulations to Lis and Ginny and the inaugural honor flight of Operation HerStory!