Over the course of seven years, Therese Agnes Hughes photographed and interviewed 800 women who served throughout the U.S. military. By documenting them, her goal was to raise awareness of the commitment and sacrifice women bring to the service.
Hughes became interested in helping female veterans during her career in public service when she noticed that many were not treated the same as their male counterparts.
"They needed help with things like their medals, their flags, getting into appropriate health care at the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs],” she said. “I created this project to interview women veterans and take photographs of them to raise awareness with other agencies in the United States.”
After Hughes completed her first 60 interviews, she noticed many of the women said they would join the service again “in a heartbeat.”
"I thought, ‘Oh this is what the military teaches them to say. But it's not,'” she said. “What that spoke to me was a commitment to our freedoms, our democracy, our flag and our nation that said something about women that I didn't hear before.”
A photography exhibit turns into a book
In August 2014, Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, the first women to deploy with an Air Force bomber unit, asked Hughes if she could create something out of her portraits. That Veterans Day, In a Heartbeat debuted as an exhibition at the Military Women's Memorial located at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
The exhibition featured black-and-white portraits of military women, each paired with a quote summarizing her service.
"The reason I chose a quote was because in the interview with the veteran … something they said stuck with me and I felt that was what represented them,” Hughes said. “So, I could represent to other people why they chose military service."
The exhibit would travel to several other locations, but many of the women and their families were unable to visit the venues honoring them. That inspired Hughes to create a book based on the exhibition, featuring 113 female veterans from all branches of the U.S. military.
In addition to further honoring the women she interviewed, Hughes hopes that young women of today can look at the portraits and “see someone who looks like them and say, ‘I can do military service.' ”
These six women are among those featured in the upcoming book In a Heartbeat, due out on March 25, 2021, from publisher Tactical 16: