As a trailblazing woman in the military, Whatocm County resident Lisa Kirk Brown knows firsthand the impact of military service on the health of women.
Her passion for women veterans' health inspired her blog, pink2camo.blogspot.com.
"Putting the message in front of people is the big thing right now," says Brown, a colonel in the Air National Guard. "The blog is for people to put questions and talk about up-to-date things that are happening in women's health issues in the military."
Brown also works with women veterans as a board member for the Whatcom County Veterans' Advisory Board, and she volunteers at Disabled American Veterans, where she helps vets access benefits and lends an ear to acknowledge their service and their struggles.
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"I have a heart for these young women," Brown says. "Lots of them are deploying overseas, many of them have children, and we don't know the impact of this."
With them, Brown shares her experience as a woman in the military, which even now is not a common experience in this country. Only 15 percent of the current military, in all armed forces, are women.
HOPED TO BECOME A PILOT
Born in Ohio, Brown, 44, spent her high-school years in Florida.
"I had two brothers and I was always kind of a tomboy," she recalls. "They always had me shooting guns."
But in true "Pink 2 Camo" style, just like her website's namesake, she also was a majorette and a member of her high school prom court.
Brown always loved math and decided to study civil engineering. She applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, even though she couldn't do even one pull-up. The military awarded her a corporate scholarship to Marion Military Institute, a military junior college in Alabama, where she says she was able to "mature" for a year before entering the Air Force Academy.
Brown was interested in being a pilot, but discovered that as a woman she would only be able to fly heavy aircraft requiring long deployments. So she focused her studies on environmental engineering.
Brown graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1990, a member of only the 10th class of graduates that included women.
REVELATION IN BOSNIA
Brown spent years working in occupational medicine at military hospitals, designing ventilation systems and protective equipment. Later, she received her doctorate in public health and worked in the Pentagon office of the Secretary of Defense.
The issue of women's health crystallized for Brown when she was working on her doctoral dissertation, studying the presence of chemicals and metals in the bodies of military members serving in Bosnia. When she finished her report, she couldn't make any firm conclusions about women soldiers because there were only two in the area to be tested.
Yet Brown points out that women's body chemistry, fatty tissue distribution and other physiological features differ greatly from men's. She says she finds the same issues in some of the work she does now, which includes making sure military members use proper safeguards when working with chemicals.
Brown says her connections in the military help support additional research on women's health, and that it's simply a matter of finding money and pulling together current research to ensure women are properly protected.
HAPPY IN THE NORTHWEST
Brown currently works as an industrial hygienist at the hospital at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. She's also busy with her own research, her blog, and other contract work for the military.
She hoped to move to the Northwest - and requested assignment to McChord Air Force Base, near Tacoma - when she graduated from the Air Force Academy 21 years ago. But it was meeting her husband, Andrew Brown, a laser physicist, that finally brought her to the region.
They met at a conference in Florida and moved to the Lake Padden area three years ago after her husband took a job as senior director for global business development at Bellingham-based organization SPIE. Brown and her husband love to bike, and are often on their boat in the San Juan Islands during the summer.
She's the mother of a 20-year-old son and now stepmother to three, including two teen girls whom she says are smart, athletic girls who inspire her to create even more opportunities in the military for women.
Brown says that can be done by helping those who have already served, as well as ensuring the military is a safe, healthy environment for women.
"There are more than three million active-duty military and veterans in our country," she says. "I do think the Veterans Administration and military are working hard to help them, but there are voices that aren't heard. We need to advocate for their health."