With both a father and an uncle who served in the Army and a brother who enlisted in the Navy, Susan Soto knew from a young age that the military would be a part of her future.What the 10-year veteran of the Air Force did not know, however, is what she wanted to do upon completing her service in 1992. She found her calling when she went to work for a Veterans Affairs hospital in Temple, Texas, about an hour north of state’s capital, Austin. It was there where she discovered just how many services and programs are available to veterans, and how few veterans knew about all of them.
So, when she moved back to her home on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in 2000, Ms. Soto made it her mission to assist local veterans by organizing programs of her own and spreading the word about services available to former members of the military, many of which are offered at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“I just want to spread that information around to veterans and get them in there so that they’re taken care of and they use all the services that are out there and available to them,” she said.
Ms. Soto’s dedication to her fellow veterans, both on the reservation and in the surrounding community, will be recognized multiple times during next week’s Veterans Day festivities.
Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley will award a proclamation to Ms. Soto at 11 a.m. Monday during the village’s annual Veterans Day parade, and she will speak at an event hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, called “The Changing Role of Women in the Military: Vietnam to Gulf War and Beyond,” at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Hampton Bays Public Library on Ponquogue Avenue.
Then on Wednesday, Ms. Soto will officially be installed as the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7009 in Southampton—making her the first Native American woman to hold the position in Suffolk County.
Ms. Soto joined the Air Force in 1982 and was assigned to the U.S. Joint Forces Command that included personnel from all branches of the military. During her service she was deployed in the Gulf War and stationed in Hawaii, Texas, Panama and Korea, ultimately earning the rank of sergeant.
She credits her father, James Phillips, an Army veteran who served in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II, as her main inspiration for wanting to serve her country.
“It was just so exciting to me to hear all these stories, so I wanted to see for myself so that’s why I joined the military, so I could get away and also see the world,” she said.
Mr. Phillips, who lives on the reservation and has been involved with the VFW for more than 20 years, said he knew his daughter would want to follow in his footsteps. “I wasn’t surprised,” he said this week. “She always sort of acted like she wanted to be involved in something like that.”
In 2002, Ms. Soto founded an annual Veterans Day celebration on the reservation and since then has hosted dances and other fundraisers to help the veterans living there. She also serves as a spokeswoman for the veterans committee of the United South & Eastern Tribes organization, which unites Native American tribes from Maine to Florida and as far west as Texas.
She has been serving as commander of the VFW Post 7009 since July 1, but will be officially installed by the state on Wednesday, November 13, Bob Grisnik, the post’s former commander, said. Mr. Grisnik, who stepped down from the post’s top position after 13 years, said Ms. Soto is highly qualified to be his replacement.
“Susan’s a great person to work with,” he said. “She’s very detail-oriented. Whatever job is given to her she gets it done. She’s a great military person.”
The League of Women Voters invited Ms. Soto to be the keynote speaker at its program next week in Hampton Bays, so she could compare the way servicewomen and female veterans are treated now compared to years past, according to Susan Wilson, a member of the League and a Vietnam War Era veteran. Ms. Wilson, who was assistant to the commanding officer at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, from 1966 to 1967, will introduce Ms. Soto next week and share a bit about her experiences as well.
“I’ll give a brief history of women in the military to lead up to Susan,” Ms. Wilson said. “I want people to see that things have changed and attitudes have changed about women in the Army, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Ms. Soto said the treatment of women in the military is still evolving.
“Now it’s changing,” she said. “Before, when I was in it, it was more of a man’s military, there weren’t many provisions for women, especially in the war zone.”