Courageous Female Veterans and Service Members Honored in ‘Proudly She Served’ Portrait Series

A Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who lost her arm during her service in Iraq. A retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer who fought on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic as an ICU nurse. A pioneering U.S. Women Airforce Service Pilot from World War II. These are just a few of the heroes whose portraits and stories will be featured in a new project honoring servicewomen.

Proudly She Served, scheduled to be launched in August 2022, includes 12 36×30-inch oil paintings of women whose military service has shown strength, courage, selflessness, and often, a trailblazing spirit. The portraits will be featured in a coffee table book, along with the women’s stories. Each woman shares her successes, challenges, and experiences, which those behind the project hope will serve as an inspiration to future generations reaching for their own goals.

WORLD WAR II WOMEN AIRFORCE SERVICE PILOT BERNICE “BEE” FALK HAYDU. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE ALPERT

Linda Maloney, Proudly She Served project director and former military aviator, says the portraits “present a very positive message about these pioneering women who achieved significant careers in our country’s military. The women are very resourceful, innovative and deeply caring advocates for military veterans, especially those men and women who are transitioning to civilian life. They are also amazing role models for women who are focused on serving their country, families, or communities while engaged in meaningful careers.”

The artist behind the series is Steve Alpert, whose work can be found in the Pentagon, the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and the Women in Military Service for America Museum at Arlington National Cemetery. Alpert also teaches art to veterans as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in Manhattan. This series really made an impression on him.

He says, “Making these portraits taught me more than I can fully express. I just completed all work very recently and the experience is still cascading on me. I wanted each painting to tell the life story of each woman. It is my desire to show their tragedy and their triumph, their positivity and their inner and outer beauty.”

ARTIST STEVE ALPERT AND U.S. NAVY LIEUTENANT ARABIA SHANKLIN. PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEVE ALPERT AND LINDA MALONEY

He feels a deep connection with those he paints.

He says on his website, “Communicated through the layers of ground-up minerals are images that bring honor and respect to the lionhearted individuals who serve others, extolling the virtues of ordinary people who deliberately put themselves into extraordinary circumstances.”

Among the lionhearted individuals he honors in the Proudly She Served series are U.S. Senator and Purple Heart recipient Tammy Duckworth, Congressional Gold Medal honoree and World War II Women Airforce Service Pilot Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, and Dawn Halfaker, a retired U.S. Army Captain who lost her arm in Iraq when her Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. She was later awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Alpert says, “It began with Dawn Halfaker, I took a few snapshots in a restaurant after we had lunch, and there it was, the fourth photo of the six I shot. Dawn had that look and I saw the tragedy and her triumph. It was exactly what I was after and stumbled on it. The power of intention. The portraits of Kirstie Ennis, Senator Tammy Duckworth, Miyoko Hikiji and Bee Haydu all have that quality. There are the smiling paintings; both Nicole Malachowski and Nicole Knowles, Angel Hughes and Arabia Shanklin — they cannot help but smile with all they’ve got and I had no choice but to portray them as their especially radiant selves.”

RETIRED U.S. ARMY CAPTAIN DAWN HALFAKER. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE ALPERT

On August 3rd, 2022, an official portrait unveiling and book launch will be held at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, with all 12 women in attendance. After that, the paintings will go on tour to schools, colleges, universities and museums. Each stop will include a special event for high school and college girls to inspire them to boldly go after their goals.

Maloney says, “My hope is that the Proudly She Served project would empower girls and young women to truly know and believe that they can achieve whatever they set their mind to…that the sky is unlimited.”

Maloney notes that there have been big strides in the advancement of women in the military, including the repeal of the combat exclusion law. This has opened up more opportunities. However, there are still areas that could use some work.

She explains, “One unique challenge is there are still some roles that are overwhelmingly male dominated and sometimes that can be a challenge when there are very few women in a command/organization. But the one thing I love about the military is that it offers a level playing field and advancement is performance based.”

U.S. SENATOR AND PURPLE HEART RECIPIENT TAMMY DUCKWORTH WITH STEVE ALPERT AND LINDA MALONEY. PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEVE ALPERT AND LINDA MALONEY

Nicole Knowles Cimino, a retired U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer and current ICU nurse who has served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, says the Coast Guard has long offered a level playing field, as well.

She explains, “The Coast Guard has absolutely no limits in regards to gender on what jobs may be held. Instead, for decades, the Coast Guard has elected to place a single set of physical standards and requirements necessary to hold the job.

“The lack of limitations placed on me because I was female appealed very much to me- my limits would be my own. I hope this is something that has a chance to be highlighted, and along with the many stories of the amazing women showcased by the proudly project, empower more women to challenge for the right to be limited only from within themselves.”

Cimino spent years instructing firearms training and qualifications. She said one challenge with regard to that is equipment isn’t necessarily designed for women. Despite that, she saw many overcome this obstacle, along with other physical limits they faced. One woman in particular inspired her after pushing herself repeatedly to pass the survival swim, which involves jumping off a high dive with roughly 30 pounds of tactical equipment, uniform, and boots.

RETIRED COAST GUARD CHIEF PETTY OFFICER NICOLE KNOWLES CIMINO. PHOTO COURTESY PROUDLY SHE SERVED PROJECT

Cimino explains, “As soon as she hit the water, her instincts would take over and she would panic and require rescuing. This didn’t happen once or twice but nearly a dozen times. Instead of giving up she went and got a membership at a gym with a pool and arranged to jump in the pool, starting first at the side of the pool with the basics and working her way up to jumping in with her uniform, before starting over again jumping in from heights. She enlisted people willing and capable of assisting her in her goals until she was finally able to pass the survival swim.”

She believes stories like this show the strength and perseverance many women can bring to the service.

She says, “She had similar struggles with literally almost every other task necessary for the job she wanted. She is not someone we are likely to see highlighted because she struggles, but how cool and how ground breaking for women that she wouldn’t quit and she showed the grit and determination.

“It’s not just the women who are more physically geared to the job that will assist with tearing down barriers but the ones who question limits quietly and with determination. She impressed me because she didn’t insist gear be changed, or the expectations be lowered, and she didn’t accept her own limitations. Instead she put in the work to change her own limitations.”

Cimino says this was just one example of her fellow female service members who kept their heads up and worked hard at their own roles, much like the other women featured in the book. She feels honored to have her own story included in the project, saying that being featured alongside the other 11 is “beyond comprehension.”

If you’d like to learn more about their stories, the project, and when to buy a book when they’re available, visit the Proudly She Served website.

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