When Andrea Norton was a Western High School senior in 1998 contemplating her next steps, she hoped the military would offer education, adventure, and the chance to travel the world.
Her time in the U.S. Air Force didn’t disappoint. She visited several countries and learned new skills. What surprised her, though, was the benefits didn’t stop in 2007 when she left active service.
In November 2020, as we celebrate Veterans Day, the military continues to offer Norton opportunities. Norton, who is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), works as the Women Veterans Program Manager at the Aleda E. Lutz Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Saginaw. As part of her job, she advocates for the VA to provide the medical services women want and need. She also feels personally called to advocate for the LGBTQ community.
While on active duty with the U.S. Air Force, Andrea Norton visited an Afghanistan orphanage every week to deliver supplies and play with the children.Finally, as a veteran herself and a VA patient, she strongly encourages veterans to consider the VA for medical needs. She believes many veterans don’t realize how VA medical services have changed over the years.
“I always joke and say it’s not your father’s VA because I guarantee he wasn’t able to do a yoga class or acupuncture or health care coaching,” she says. “Those are the things that are integrative services that people don’t think about the VA providing.”
The military gave Norton more than health care options. She is one of a growing number of female military veterans. Women have been part of the military for generations, but the number of women serving jumped significantly during the Gulf War. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, women were deployed in record numbers. The Military Women’s Memorial estimates that more than 400,000 women were deployed to serve in almost every military unit.
Men and women join the military for a myriad of reasons. For Norton, the journey began when she watched the nightly news with her mom, Joan Norton.
“I grew up with a sense that there was a world bigger than what I was surrounded by,” she says. “I like to do my own thing and forge my own path. I saw this as an opportunity to do that, where I could learn new skills and travel and just do something very different from what anyone would have expected me to do.”
It took a little bit to convince Mom it was the right decision.
Norton’s grandfathers served in World War II. Her paternal grandfather, Clyde Norton, was in the U.S. Marine Corps. Her maternal grandfather, Harold Klass, was in the U.S. Navy. Her father, Larry Norton, served in the Navy during Vietnam, but her mom still had doubts about sending her daughter off to serve.
Her mom turned to Norton’s great uncle, Joseph Kata, who worked full-time with the Michigan National Guard until retiring in 1992 as a Chief Warrant Officer 3. His advice was to not fight the decision.
“He told her to have me talk to every recruiter and hear what they all have to say and then make a decision. You can help her make the right decision,” Kata told Norton’s mom.
Today, Norton offers that same advice to young people interested in the military.
As a young woman, she liked what the Air Force recruiter had to say and signed up, expecting to work on an air crew. Instead, she was sent to work in the intelligence field. She learned to read satellite imagery so well she can tell you exactly what kind of aircraft are sitting on the runway. She honed her skills enough to earn the right to travel as a mobile instructor, teaching others how to accurately read satellite images.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1998 to 2007, Andrea Norton now works at the VA Medical Center in Saginaw as an advocate for women veterans.Along the way, she met people from all over the world. Norton went from living in a mostly white community to a multicultural environment.
“I was surrounded by people from all over,” she remembers. “People from the Philippines, people from different territories and different places in the US. People were of different races and different backgrounds. And yet you have one cohesive mission that you are all connected with in a meaningful way. To be around all that diversity all the time, that was a blessing.”
Norton was stationed in Virginia at the Langley Air Force Base and then in San Diego. In San Diego, she was part of a joint intelligence training unit comprised of Air Force, Army, and Navy personnel. She traveled to Japan, Korea, Hawaii, Washington, and Alaska to conduct training seminars.
After her service ended, Norton came home to Michigan enrolled at the James Madison College at Michigan State University. At first, it didn’t work out as planned. She was a few years older than typical undergraduate and felt isolated in East Lansing. In the military, she had to hide that she was bisexual since it was the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“That was the first time I was able to openly show up exactly who I was and I didn’t know who that was,” Norton says. “It was really challenging to not know who you are and to connect to people in a meaningful way when you feel so different.”
While at MSU, she began considering a career in social work. “I just started thinking about it and I was like ‘This might be more aligned with what I’m really looking for.’ ”
At first, Norton worked at a homeless shelter in Lansing. She helped veterans find housing. She was laid off and went to a co-worker for advice. He was a veteran too and suggested the VA near her hometown.
She came back to this area and started working as a therapist, but it wasn’t for her. She stayed with the VA, but transitioned to work as a housing specialist. When the Women Veterans Program Manager position opened up, Norton knew she had found her niche.
Veterans, male and female, may not realize the options VA centers offer. If the center doesn’t provide a service, it can contract for it in the community. For example, the Aleda Lutz provides gynecology services, but not birthing services. Instead, the VA contracts with local obstetricians. Veterans often have co-existing conditions and unique mental health needs that complicate care. Because of that, a VA case manager follows patients to make sure everything goes smoothly from pregnancy to delivery to postpartum concerns.
“That’s why I became a social worker. I wanted to be able to advocate, to raise the voice of people who don’t have a strong enough voice. What I’ve tried to do with the women’s program is to give them a platform, to give women an opportunity. If I can amplify their voices and their needs, that’s what I want to do. I want to make sure they know they have someone who’s going to go to bat for them. I also get my health care at the VA, so, selfishly, I want to make sure it’s good.”
The number of women veterans is steadily growing, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs 2018 study that was released in May 2020. The study predicts that over the next 30 years the total veteran population will shrink about 1.7%. But the number of women veterans is expected to rise about .3%.
“I think there’s a lot more outreach and recognition that women are joining the ranks of the VA now,” Norton says.