By Susan Kaplan
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The return from military life is notoriously difficult, particularly for women suffering a delayed reaction to trauma and the aftermath of sexual assault. One transitional housing program offers a way forward.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Tinamarie Polverari, a formerly homeless Army veteran, proudly calls Jackie K's House her home.
She and 11 other female veterans live in two white clapboard and brick cottages on the grounds of the Veteran's Administration hospital in Northampton, Mass.
Despite growing numbers of homeless female veterans, Jackie K's House is one of only two transitional housing programs for female veterans in the country, says Jack Downing, director of Soldier On, the nonprofit group that founded Jackie K's House in 2005.
Meanwhile, the number of women enlisted in the U.S. military and reserves today continue to grow.
In some cases, these female soldiers--many serving in Iraq and Afghanistan--come closer to combat than previous generations.
And when they come home, the percentage who become homeless exceeds that of their male counterparts. About 131,000 veterans are homeless and about 22 percent between the ages of 18 and 34 are women.
These younger women, researchers say, bring greater vulnerabilities to their military service, including more likelihood of sexual assault, which correlates with high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
They also have lower incomes than men and many have children.
"Women are serving fully integrated in so many different ways, including in these wars," Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recent interview. "We need to make sure that all of our care, all of our systems, all of the things that have been there a long time are able to change to support them."
The percentage of women serving in the military has been rising for years, yet the Veterans Administration, or VA, facilities remain primarily geared to men.
Mullen says improving a system created solely for the treatment of men will take time. His advice to homeless female veterans: "Hang in there."
At Soldier On, Downing explains why troubled female vets need more single-sex, long-stay facilities.
"We spend lots of time and money training people to be soldiers and we don't spend lots of time and money teaching them to come back and be civilians," he said. "They need to have almost a three-to-six month decompression period. Because we know that people who have talked to somebody before the crisis are nine times more likely to call when the crisis develops."
Downing says no matter what type of adjustment disorder, whether hyper-vigilance, anxiety or post-traumatic brain disorder "we don't get to choose when they are going to activate. It can be as many as six or seven years out from military service or as fast as the first day back."
Downing says without fundamental changes in the VA, women won't get adequate care. He says he learned that when he first took over the homeless veterans program at the VA hospital in Northampton, where women were housed for short stays in a section of a building otherwise for men. "They relapsed and many of them became victims of the men who were in recovery here. It was horrible," he said.
Jackie K's House has an all-female staff and residents stay on average about two years, sharing chores such as cleaning and gardening. A three-person group manages grocery shopping and household repairs. The women attend meetings, writing workshops and support groups.
Men are welcome, by invitation only.
Polverari, 38, says at age 18 she enlisted in the Army "cause all my friends---they were having babies and everything--and I like adventure."
She traveled to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training then moved to Fort Hood in Texas, where she trained as a cook.
Just like in the movies, she says, the military breaks you down and then builds you back up.
She learned to use weapons and got in great shape.
On Oct. 31, 1990, her company landed in Saudi Arabia.
"We were a fuel unit. We supported First Cav on the frontlines," she said.
Working at a base constantly under threat of enemy fire was plenty stressful.
But worse, she says, were repeated sexual attacks by a male soldier.
Nonetheless, Polverari found leaving the structure of Army life to be tough. "No matter what rank you are in the military there is always somebody telling you something to do," she said.
Polverari says that after she left the Army in 1993 she started using crack cocaine and heroine, became homeless and spent time in jail. She's been in programs battling addiction since 1997.
At Jackie K's, she says she's feeling hopeful for the first time in a long time.
"I know deep down in my heart that this is the last time that I will ever be homeless," Polverari said. "Because I'm 38 years old and I believe I deserve a place of my own. I never thought that before."
Alexis, a veteran who lives in the Northampton area and doesn't want her full name to be used, says women in the military reluctantly admit they need help.
"You're automatically assumed to be tough," she said. "If you can do the military, if you can hang with the guys, if you can do basic training, you're tough."
Alexis spent six years in the Air Force and ran logistics for the 55th communications squadron, providing support in Iraq. She later ran her unit's Hurricane Disaster Relief in New Orleans.
Following long weeks of 20-hour days, Alexis stopped sleeping.Soon after came her first mental break. She's now diagnosed as bipolar.
Although she does have her own housing today, she tried and failed to get military housing help in the past. Alexis says when she left the military she had no idea that there was help for Veterans. She says, " It took me months and months to learn about the VA."
Susan Kaplan is a public radio reporter based in Western Massachusetts.
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