No Strings Attached

Three women veterans walk around Lake Murray.


The dragonflies are flitting around the lake, and Billiekai Boughton ’15 (MSEL) can’t help herself. Shenterrupts her thoughts about veterans and talks about how the gossamer-winged creatures are born underwater, but also don’t just ultimately live outside it: they get to fly.

It’s a sweltering morning that will, by degrees, eventually reach 100. Boughton and another die-hard member of her women veterans group — “I think the heat scared off most of them,” Boughton says — are walking around San Diego’s Lake Murray and talking about their shared experiences as veterans in combat zones that were close geographically, if not chronologically.

There’s an ease the pair has together, despite the decade or so that separated Boughton’s stint in the U.S. Army serving in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during Desert Storm from Colleen Shuster’s time in the Marine Corps during the Iraq War.

“This definitely has changed my life, meeting Billiekai,” says Shuster. As they walk, little echoes of their shared experience creep in: A fellow vet who’d resisted treatment got into a therapy program? They high five. Shuster says she’ll get back to Boughton on something, and the reply is an unironic “10-4.”

Boughton is a natural when it comes to connecting female veterans: Her role as a Desert Storm vet places her in between the main populations of women who served: those from the Vietnam era and those emerging from recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Boughton is all about the positive difference she can make,

targeting a gap aimed at helping women vets. It’s not just mornings like this; she also organizes vision-board sessions, trips such as visiting with miniature horses, attending a concert as a group or other activities aimed at supporting mental health and bringing people together.

While her efforts are about helping and connecting women, the outings aren’t necessarily the place to discuss some of the traumatic personal experiences they may have endured during their life in the service.

Boughton notes she’s not a therapist, but she is adept at helping vets find the services they need. Still, many of the things they experienced — and are still experiencing — as women may well come up: that the local Veterans Affairs hospital only retained an OB/GYN on staff at the end of 2017; that there is just one mammography machine available, which comes with a long wait; incredulity from other vets when they visit the VA — “Where’s your husband?” — or, worse, a certain suggestive tone.

She says she uses her master’s in executive leadership all the time in her day job as executive administrator for the San Diego Supercomputer Center and in the nonprofit she founded, the San Diego Women Veterans Network. She calls her discovery of the MSEL program via a random email she received as morphing into a “really fun, universe is supporting me adventure.”

“I loved it. I loved being on campus, I loved the program, I loved the instructors, I loved the content. And I immediately started applying what I learned the first week of the program.”

Boughton, who is married and has a teenage son, targets the isolation women veterans can experience and delights in helping some recover the pride they took in their service. “I love watching it happen,” Boughton says. “It’s really empowering.”

“She just brings people together and has this really personal approach,” Shuster says.

That attitude comes without strings. She aims for the group to make women feel “welcome, but not obligated.”

“I generally believe that we’re stronger together, but I don’t believe in taking hostages,” she says with a laugh.

All of her efforts are by design, but in an under-the-radar way. The monthly walking meet-ups help women make connections while taking the pressure off. Boughton is ready with a soft referral — a warm handoff, she calls it — if someone is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, or just needs to know how to get a “veteran” designation on her driver’s license.

“We know sunshine is good for us. We know movement is good for us. You can bring your kids or your dog.” Her welcoming vibe is at work, but she also helps women remove barriers — or excuses — that might come up.

And those dragonflies she mentioned weren’t just about enjoying a moment in nature. It’s symbolic with Boughton. A little like butterflies, dragonflies also go through metamorphosis.

“I value growth and change.” — Kelly Knufken

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