Newsletter July 2021

Greetings and Happy 4th of July!

I am Mary Ellen Scherl, artist and creator of “Defending Democracy”. You are receiving this newsletter because you have touched this project or have a personal connection with people involved.

Originally conceived as a series of painted portraits, the scope of Defending Democracy has grown. It now includes a documentary series exploring the powerful, historic, and often unsung stories of women who with honor, courage and sacrifice volunteer to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Our mission is to examine the authentic experience of each of these warrior women, to demonstrate what it takes to protect our democracy and freedom and to bridge the military – civilian gap. By example, their lives beg the viewer to question, “Am I doing my part?”

As I became acquainted with the women interested in participating in Defending Democracy, I soon realized that I was learning about our collective history through their personal narratives. I was on the edge of my seat listening to their fascinating, topical, historical, heart-wrenching, heartwarming and eye-opening stories. Stories that needed to be told.

A few weeks before the first photo session, Connie Coopersmith, a Washington strategist and filmmaker, advised that the portrait project will have even greater impact if presented in tandem with a documentary series featuring interviews with each woman. So, on May 1, with my videographer Alexa Caravia in tow, we began our epic journey.

Our goal is to represent the broad female military experience across various services and ranks, the heroism, the hardships and everything in between.

To date, we have met, photographed and video-interviewed three women.

Anna. Fourth generation Army. Hays, Kansas
Via a Facebook posting, former infantry officer assigned to SFD(A)E Kent Cassels asked if anyone knew a CST (Cultural Support Team) member.  His long-time friend SFC Bill Wear responded that his daughter was a CST. Kent and Bill served together in the early 80’s when Bill ran operations at Platoon Confidence Training near Bad Tolz, Germany, when Kent was the executive officer there and when Bill’s wife was pregnant with Anna. 

Staff Sergeant Anna Wear was a member of the CST’s, an elite female unit that served alongside Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. In preparation for her deployments, Anna committed herself to attaining the same levels of competency as was expected of the men on her missions. Her role was to directly interact with Afghan women and children during combat operations, as it was deemed culturally inappropriate if performed by a male service member. Though Anna suffers from PTSD and chronic back pain, she remains grateful for her military experience.

Rosa. (Name changed for security purposes) Key West, Florida 

Through an email introducing Defending Democracy to members of Chapter 76 of the Special Forces Association, Joe Pruett and Jim Trice connected me to Lieutenant Colonel “Rosa”.

“Rosa” grew up in the Panama Canal Zone and witnessed Operation Just Cause as a teenager.  As a young adult, feeling her career opportunities were limited in Panama, this brave young woman left her family and childhood home and emigrated to the United States. With just a few hundred dollars in her pocket and hungry to find work, “Rosa” enlisted in the National Guard. Today, as a naturalized citizen, she serves as an intelligence officer. Her three deployments have included a tour to Iraq. When we met, she was awaiting her next assignment.

Nora. Oro Valley, Arizona

Through another of Kent’s friends, former naval aviator Grant Kasischke, I was introduced to Vice Admiral (Ret.) Nora Tyson. Early in her Naval career Nora was navigator onboard Grant’s carrier aircraft.

Nora was the first female Carrier Strike Group Commander and first female Third Fleet Commander. Nora also served as Vice Director of the Joint Staff. Nora’s exemplary 38-year career began days after graduating from college with an unexpected phone call from a recruiter.

Other developments…

Upcoming portraits.
At the Bakehouse Art Complex in Wynwood, Miami, my studio neighbor Lauren Shapiro connected me with her stepmom Col. Robyn Bolgla, an Army reservist working as a physical therapist at the Miami VA.  She is coordinating a group of women who are actively serving in the reserves in a medical capacity (physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals) for a group portrait.

501(c)3 status.
Two attorneys at the law firm Foley and Lardner, LLC, have volunteered on a pro bono basis to engage with Defending Democracy to attain 501(c)3 nonprofit status.  They are Melody Deatherage, who comes from a military family, and Taylor Pancake, a former Marine reservist who served in Iraq and Kuwait in 2003 in  Operation Iraqi Freedom. I am so appreciative of their generosity and support.

Connie Coopersmith and Taylor Pancake have offered to join me on the board.

Led by Pam Mayer, a team from my writers’ group -Susan Schein, Irina Patterson, Marj O’Neill-Butler and Rossie Cortes- are helping me with fundraising and social media outreach.

This summer and fall I will complete two or three painted portraits. Shortly we will share a trailer for Defending Democracy showing select scenes from the first three days of filming. We are planning a soft launch with a reception for Defending Democracy in December 2021 during Art Basel Miami. Details to follow.

THANK YOU! to everyone who has in some way supported and encouraged this effort. Feel free to forward this newsletter to friends and colleagues who might be interested.

And to all who have volunteered to serve to protect our country and freedom, I am one of many who is forever grateful. How wonderful and fitting to launch our first newsletter on Independence Day!

Be safe. Be well. Enjoy the holiday! 

Mary Ellen Scherl