Memorial Day stirs personal memories for Gina Stamper. She has served with and for thousands of Idahoans who have worn a uniform, women in particular. She also remembers a number of her fellow servicemen and women who were lost too soon while serving their nation.
Having served as Idaho's state women veterans coordinator for seven years, Stamper now serves as the treasurer for the National Association of State Women Veterans Coordinators. Stamper spends her days advocating for approximately 11,000 Idaho women who have served in the armed forces.
Stamper also wore a uniform—that of the U.S. Coast Guard. Straight out of high school, she turned 18 years old in boot camp.
"My mom didn't believe I would do it until we were driving to the airport," she said. "It was so far outside of anything I could have imagined."
Boise Weekly spoke to Stamper about her advocacy, her own service and her involvement in one of the most-dramatic rescues at sea in maritime history.
Did you find fulfillment in your time with the Coast Guard?
I loved it. I was the 911 operator of the ocean.
I'm guessing you were involved in some pretty serious rescue operations.
We had a particularly harrowing situation in February 1997. I was the telecommunications specialist on watch aboard Coast Guard Group Port Angeles, Wash. We received a garbled Mayday call. I couldn't quite figure out where the vessel was, so I was waking people everywhere up and down the U.S. and Canada coast, trying to pinpoint the location. The sailboat had already lost its mast.
(The waves measured 25-feet; the winds were clocked at 30-knots. As the civilian vessel became flooded and the engine failed, it began to drift dangerously close to rock formations between the Quillayute River and the Pacific Ocean. According to official accounts of the rescue, Stamper took charge of all communications between the sinking sailboat and a fleet of rescue cutters, lifeboats and helicopters.)
Our first rescue boat had problems.
(The sea rolled one rescue boat three times, ripping its superstructure off from the hull.)
There were four souls on that boat. We lost three of them. The only Coastie who survived on that boat was a guy straight out of boot camp. He had tethered himself to the boat.
Was the rescue successful?
It was. We managed to pluck the two civilians out of the water just before their craft smashed against the rocks. The pilots of the helicopter were honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross. That's how bad things were.
(Stamper was commended for her performance by the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.)
Why did you leave the service?
By then, I was a mom and decided to discharge and come back home. I took a job as a receptionist at the Boise Veterans Home. That was in December 2000. A couple of years later, I became a service officer and about a year after that, I was appointed to be the state's women veterans coordinator.
Isn't it fair to say that a good many veterans don't know about their benefits?
A lot of them are intimidated by the VA system
And isn't that especially true for females?
Many women who have served don't consider themselves veterans.
Does that come from the cliche of what we think a veteran is?
I think so. When we first started organizing our state women veterans conference, I had to convince quite a few women that they were indeed eligible for their health care benefits. As of last November, we have approximately 11,000 women veterans in Idaho.
I'm certain you expect that number to grow.
We had 101 women deploy with the 116th [Cavalry Brigade Combat Team] to Iraq. That was 15 percent of the total. And we're seeing the number of new women enlistees jump as well.
How is the VA preparing to meet that growing demographic?
The medical center just opened a new women's clinic just a few weeks ago. Women now have their own physicians and nurses. That's huge.
I must note that your eyes welled up several times during our conversation.
Well, I'm a state employee. I can tell you I'm not here for the money. I'm quite cognizant that I would not have got to be where I am today without all of the women who came before me.