Shelley Tessmer and Jennifer Pankowski stand next to the displays bearing their stories. The traveling exhibit highlights the contributions of women in the military.

Two Waterford women vets take part in traveling exhibit

By Dave Fidlin


Since its unveiling, a traveling art exhibit known as, “I Am Not Invisible” has been on display in disparate locales across Southeastern Wisconsin.

This spring, it made a pit stop in Waterford – and for good reason.

Milwaukee-based War Memorial Center played a pivotal role in assembling a local iteration of “I Am Not Invisible,” a national campaign designed to put a spotlight on the important role women have played in the military.

The Southeastern Wisconsin component of the project highlighted the stories of 31 women who had a connection to military service. Two of the participants – Jennifer Pankowski and Shelley Tessmer – live in Waterford.

Pankowski, who served in the Army National Guard, recently shared with the Waterford Post why she took part in the exhibit, and what she has gained from the experience.

The 31 women profiled in the local “I Am Not Invisible” exhibit come from all walks of life, Pankowski said, and represent every branch of the military – from World War II to the present.

“We’ve really run the gamut,” Pankowski said. “The spread is amazing for 31 people. All of us have connections to Southeastern Wisconsin. We were either born here or live here now.”

Some of the project participants served for several years, Pankowski said, while others gave upward of 35 years to the military. Many of the participants are first-generation servicewomen within their families.

On multiple occasions, Pankowski said she has attended events – including a November launch party at the WMC – with many of the other project participants and has forged a close kinship with the women.

“It’s really been an incredible honor getting to know these other women,” she said.

As she took part in the project, Pankowski said she gained an acute awareness of the important role women have – and continue to – play in the different branches of service. While men have long been recognized for their part, Pankowski said she is hopeful the same overtures will be extended to women as well.

“I didn’t even think of myself as being invisible until recently,” Pankowski said. “My husband is also a vet. I started noticing we’d go to functions and a lot of people would thank him for his service.”

Pankowski said the differences in recognition between the genders are seemingly subtle.

“My husband wears a tight military haircut and has a presence about himself that looks military,” she said. “When we’d go to events, he’d oftentimes have a shirt that says, ‘USMC’ on it, or a hat. A lot of women veterans don’t do that. We just don’t wear T-shirts or pins or logos or anything, so we are oftentimes overlooked.”

The overarching message: “You might not recognize someone as a veteran, just based on how they look,” Pankowski said.

From her vantage point, Pankowski said she feels honored to have been a part of a campaign that first got its start in Oregon before spreading nationally with the assistance of national-level Veterans Administration officials.

“It’s less about the personal attention and more about the attention it brings to the subject in general,” Pankowski said. “It’s been an honor for me to meet all of these incredible women.”

“I Am Not Invisible” was on loan for three weeks in Waterford — two weeks at the Waterford Public Library and one week at Waterford Union High School.

While the exhibit’s time in Waterford has come to a close, it is traveling to other venues throughout Southeastern Wisconsin. For information on the initiative and its upcoming stops, visit