Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
VR Small was in the waiting room at the Veterans Affairs hospital when the receptionist announced the doctor was ready to see “Mr. Small.” The six-year Navy veteran corrected the woman, but after being sick all weekend, her croaky voice never reached the receptionist. She called for Mr. Small two more times. More than 180,000 female veterans in Texas face similar comments and other barriers to services. So when the W.W. Samuell High School graduate moved back to Dallas from New York in 2015, she founded the Veteran Women’s Enterprise Center. As executive director, she helps veteran women business owners succeed by providing a co-working space with on-site mentors, enrichment activities and opportunities for advancement. Small, who is the daughter of a Vietnam vet, also testified in support of a bill to make June 12 Women Veterans Day in Texas. She chaired the Dallas planning committee for the holiday’s first official celebration in 2018.
How she survived boot camp: I went to boot camp in Orlando, Florida, and it was awesome. It was not hard. My mom is the screaming type. All that yelling they were doing, I was like, “Y’all are going to have to do better than that if you want tears from me. My mom is way tougher than you.” My dad was a kitten. My mom was the monster, and she wasn’t the one in the military. I already knew how to do my bed and fold my clothes. I aced all my inspections.
On singing in the choir: I was calling cadence, and they found out I could sing and asked if I wanted to join the choir. While they were out doing drills, I was in the air conditioning rehearsing for graduation. They asked me if I was going to march with my troop. I said, “Are you crazy? They’re going to be standing out there for 18 salutes. I’m marching with the choir.” After the color guard, we sat down and watched them do their thing.
Coolest moment: The coolest thing that happened when I was in the military was I got called back for “Dream Girls.” The Navy said, “You’re not going anywhere.” That was heartbreaking. People were like, “You should go AWOL.” I was like, “You’re stupid because the minute I go onstage they’re going to arrest me.” I would have had to travel for more than a month. When it came out, I was like, “That should have been me.”
What she learned from the military: It really established my work ethic. I was given an assignment packing something. Four o’clock came, and I was ready to go. I had already changed when I ran into my commander. I said I’d finish tomorrow. He said, “When people walk past that project, they’re going to say, ‘Small did that.’” Not that I left it a mess, but I left it unfinished. I got back into my uniform and finished the project. You need to work until you get the job done. My work is a direct reflection of me.
Her experience with discrimination: All my years on Veterans Day, I’m geared up with my Navy hat and Navy jacket, but people still don’t think of me as a veteran. They think I’m wearing my boyfriend’s stuff. I went with some (female military retirees) to eat someplace, and we asked about a veteran discount. The waitress said, “Yes, but the veteran has to be here.” I had to hold them down. They just started schooling her. People just assume a veteran is a guy. I signed on the dotted line just like the guys did. If they called me to go, I would have had to put my life on the line like anybody else. A lot of women believe if they didn’t deploy, they’re not veterans. It doesn’t matter. If you served in the U.S. military, you are a veteran.
Why she gives back: Texas has the largest number of women veterans in the country. It has the second largest number of registered veteran women-owned businesses. When we’re doing our work, we’re not just helping a woman become self-sufficient. Sixty percent of these women are head of household, so we’re helping families. Now that these women have funds, we’re building our giving community. Nonprofits, schools and churches are going to benefit. We’re fueling our nation’s economic engine, which is small business. We’re doing nation building.
Accomplishment she is most proud of: I’m most proud of this center. Female veterans really do see things differently. I hear women say they feel disconnected from the civilian world. We can’t escape it, but here’s a place where you’re not the minority. I see why it’s working. This is an inviting environment where there are things you might actually want to do with people you might actually want to connect with. This is legacy stuff for me. Even when I’m gone, this center will carry on and be here.
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