Over a meal of blackened salmon and a side salad, Karen Pence asked 23 service women sitting beside her to share their experiences in the military and to discuss the challenges and rewards of their service.
Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, was eager to hear their stories during the informal, 45-minute lunch Monday at the Freedom Inn Dining Facility.
“For me, my role is one of encouragement. It’s one of gratitude,” she said. “To get a chance today to shake [your] hands and say, ‘I’m so grateful for what you’re doing for our country. I’m so grateful that you’ve made the sacrifice and made this choice.’ ”
The lunch was part of Pence’s first visit to Fort Meade in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Before meeting the service women, Pence toured the installation and had a briefing with Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard, Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Cullen and Mary Staab, chief of the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security.
“For me, this wasn’t even so much a policy priority,” Pence said after the lunch. “Mrs. [Melania] Trump asked me to do something with women for this month of March. I just immediately said I want to do something for women in the military.
“Our son is in the military and just got married, so I want to do something for female spouses, but I also wanted to spend a day or two reaching out to women who actually are in the military.”
Pence and the service women, who represented a variety of ranks in all five service branches, discussed several topics ranging from the benefits of physical fitness training and the educational opportunities offered in the military, to the efforts of senior-ranking women to mentor women in the junior ranks.
The service women either volunteered to attend the lunch or were selected by their commands.
Marine Cpl. Leslie Paz of the Marine Forces Cyber Space Command said she was excited to meet Pence.
“Not everyone can say that they could meet a [second] lady,” Paz said.
The service members also were interested in learning more about Pence.
Sgt. Maj. Deborah Patterson of the Army Field Support Center, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, asked Pence if she would share why she is interested in art therapy.
Pence, a watercolorist and former elementary school teacher, has made art therapy the focus of her mission as wife of the vice president. She first became aware of art therapy when she visited Tracy’s Kids, an art therapy program for several children’s hospitals in the Washington, D.C., area in 2006 while her husband was in Congress. Today she serves as a board member for Tracy’s Kids.
Pence later became the honorary chair of the Art Therapy Initiative at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. Pence worked to bring funding to the hospital for art therapy and now two full-time art therapists are on staff there.
“Art therapy is not arts and crafts,” Pence said, noting that art therapists are mental health professionals with master’s and doctoral degrees. “They use art. … That’s how they help you get in touch with what you’re going through.”
Pence said art therapy is not only used to help children. It is also used to help victims of domestic violence as well as service members who have experienced trauma during combat.
Progress Has Been Made
During a discussion at lunch about the challenges women face in the military, Navy Cmdr. Audrey Adams of Headquarters U.S.10th Fleet/Fleet Cyber Command told Pence that military policies have changed to help service women, who are raising families, create a “work life balance.”
“There’s been a lot of positive change,” Adams said, particularly in granting women more liberal pregnancy leave.
Sgt. 1st Class Christina Pearson, the garrison’s Sexual Assault Response coordinator, asked Pence if she was familiar with the Army’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program and with programs that deal with sexual assault in schools.
Pence said she was unaware of programs that address sexual assault in schools.
“One of my hard and fast rules” is not to talk about policy issues, Pence said. Instead, she said, she considers herself a “listening ear” who can share with the Trump administration the needs and concerns of the people she meets.
Pearson said she works with sexual assault victims at Fort Meade and that she is often a listening ear for service members who have been assaulted and want to talk about their experience — sometimes years after the assault.
“God bless you,” Pence said to Pearson. “That’s a tough thing to hear their stories … and not get discouraged yourself.”
After lunch, Pence and the service members posed for a group photograph that was tweeted on Pence’s official Twitter account. She also posed with service members for cellphone photographs and selfies.
“I just felt it was very nice [of] her to take the time to visit us,” said Spc. Marisa Tortolano of the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade. “I thought it was really good and productive [of] her to ask what we thought about things and take it back to the White House.”
Tortolano said Pence’s visit was not “all about publicity.” Instead, it was “having that one-on-one discussion that was much more personal.”
Before preparing to leave, Pence reflected on her visit.
“This was very enjoyable,” she said. “ … It was humbling and inspiring today to meet these women.”