Group photo from Athena's Sisters website.

Group photo from Athena’s Sisters website. Lindsay Gargotto at far left.

Athena’s Sisters is the only organization of its kind in Kentucky. It’s an educational, motivational and artistic support network for women who are veterans or active military.

The group holds regular meetings twice a month. One meeting is open to anyone and features guest speakers who talk about resources for women in the community; the other is for veterans and active military women only. The organization invites guest artists from around the community to teach the women something about art. Sometimes it’s painting, sometimes it’s creative writing — recently a guest artist brought a dulcimer to share with the women.

The meetings always offer free childcare and open with a shared meal. Athena’s Sisters also hosts special events.

Lindsay Gargotto, who founded Athena’s Sisters a year ago, calls women “invisible veterans.” Male veterans wear baseball caps identifying themselves as former service members. They’re joining groups and clubs. They’re marching in parades. Perhaps most importantly, in her mind, is that they make use of the Veterans Affairs services.

There are more than 33,000 female veterans in Kentucky, and fewer than 3,000 make use of the V.A. Why? Gargotto says she didn’t know she was eligible for services with the V.A. for years after she left the Air Force. She thought you had to put in 20 years to be eligible for benefits and services.

Also, the Louisville V.A. Medical Center has only one gynecologist — a male — and a part-time nurse practitioner. Gargotto says the culture of the V.A. is “very masculine,” and typically when women go there for services, they’re assumed to be military spouses.

Lindsay Gargotto | U of L Today

Lindsay Gargotto | U of L Today

But she points out that the local V.A. recently hired a full-time Women Veterans Program Manager, so strides are being made in the right direction.

Gargotto used her military benefits to major in women’s and gender studies at the University of Louisville. She then went on to get a master’s degree in social work and a master’s of fine art in creative writing at Spalding University. She’s also done a lot of social justice work, making her uniquely qualified to lead this organization.

While in the Air Force, Gargotto worked as an X-ray tech, spending one year in Texas and three years in Anchorage, Alaska.

Upon returning to Kentucky (she’s originally from Georgetown, Ky.), Gargotto formed Athena’s Sisters with two other members, largely because she wanted friends who would understand what military life and being a veteran was like. The group — named for the Greek Athena, goddess of war, as well as wisdom and the arts — now has 160 members in Kentucky and Southern Indiana and has a diverse population of women from ages 30-75.

Younger women are harder to reach, Gargotto says. They’re most likely fresh out of service and, sometimes, when that happens, the last thing you want is to be reminded of your time in the military. Also, these women are at critical life-building times: finding a career, getting married, having children.

Even though Gargotta has her master’s in social work, Athena’s Sisters does not provide therapy or similar services. Twice a month, social workers from U of L do come to the organization to provide free assessments to members.

The organization became a 501c3 nonprofit in November and currently subsists on donations and membership fees, but they have several grant applications in the works.

At the last meeting, Heather French Henry spoke to the group about plans for the “Year of the Veteran Women.”

In 2014, Gargotto was named Kentucky’s first Female Veteran of the Year.