With the aroma of grilled burgers and hot dogs wafting around them at an Eisenhower Park picnic she arranged, Nassau County's newest veterans service officer spotted a female Navy veteran and raised an eyebrow.
"Are you . . . ?" Sylinthia Burges gently asked, prompting a smile and a confirmatory nod from the former Navy yeoman, Jessica Lopez, who is expecting in November.
Burges, a four-year Army veteran who joined the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency in April, is the first woman ever hired there to help former military personnel grapple with health, housing, family, financial and other issues.
There are a growing number of female veterans living on Long Island, many who say they have sometimes felt ill-served by the traditionally male orientation of veterans help organizations.
"That's something a man wouldn't have noticed," Lopez, 37, of Freeport, said of her early pregnancy. "Sylinthia is understanding and sympathetic."
With the ranks of women in the military growing from 2 percent in 1973 to 14 percent today, more women are in need of the assistance that federal and county veterans agencies provide. That is especially true as attacks on military convoys or other noncombat units staffed by women in Iraq or Afghanistan has boosted combat exposure among female veterans from 7 percent before 1990 to about 24 percent now.
That means female veterans are coming home with many of the same problems as male veterans, including combat wounds, psychological stress and alienation from spouses and children after overseas deployments lasting a year or longer.
Added to this is high levels of sexual trauma. Last year, more than 1 in 5 women in the military experienced sexual harassment, according to a Rand Corp. report, which said nearly 5 in 100 were physically assaulted.
Many female veterans say it can feel inappropriate to seek help for these and other issues from male veterans services counselors.
"When you talk to a male, you can't tell them everything because they don't understand," Lopez said, adding she recently asked for Burges by name for help with a disability claim. "She is understanding and sympathetic."
Nassau Veterans Service Agency director Ralph Esposito said the need to add a female perspective was apparent after he became the agency's chief 16 months ago.
"They would come in with their heads down," Esposito said in an email interview. "Many of them suffered some sort of trauma in the military and weren't comfortable talking about it to a male counselor."
"We serve any veteran, no matter what, but the female veteran population has definitely been underserved," Esposito said. "We wanted them to feel comfortable enough to ask for whatever help they needed."
Burges said her background has helped her relate to both male and female veterans, and to both new and older veterans.
The daughter of a Vietnam veteran and the graduate of a high school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, she enlisted in 1984, and worked in a military law office during a deployment to South Korea. Her husband is a former Army staff sergeant who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I know what they go through, because I've lived it," Burges said. "I want to do everything I can to help them."