Saving Our Female Veterans | Your South Florida

Women veterans are four times more likely
to be become homeless than their nonveteran counterparts. Military sexual trauma, posttraumatic stress
disorder. Those are some of our top 10 diagnoses for
female veterans. The military doesn’t have a very good way
of putting back into civilian life. They don’t really connect you with the proper
resources. They put their lives on the line to serve
our country, but it’s often the battles they face back here at home that are the most challenging. From homelessness to suicide, we reveal the
major issues facing our female veterans and ways they can find the help they need. Stay with us as we dive into “Your South Florida.” Hello and welcome. I’m Pam Giganti. Thank you so much for joining us. And welcome to the allnew “Your South Florida”
where we choose one important topic each month that’s having an impact on our local communities. We’ll dive deep into that issue and take a
look at it from several angles. As we honor those who served selflessly on
Veteran’s Day this month, we’re shining a light on the fastestgrowing segment of that
population. Our nation’s female veterans. Of the 20 million veterans in the U.S., women
account for nearly two million of them. According the U.S. Department of Veterans
Affairs, Florida is home to the secondlargest population of female veterans in the United
States with more than 145,000. But, as this population grows, so does the
strain on local resources set up to help with a delicate transition from being a soldier
back to civilian life. It’s a complex transition that includes higher
risks of suicide, homelessness, and mental health issues that female veterans often face
alone. [Laura] I joined the Marine Corps as an 18yearold
fresh out of high school. I didn’t really know back then that that would
lead me to the work that I’m doing now. [Pam] Sergeant Laura Whitfield served nearly
nine years in the U.S. Marine Corps. I needed to have some discipline and structure
in my life and the recruiters were coming to my school in different branches and I loved
the Marine Corps uniform. So, that was really the first hook Uh huh. And then, you know, learning more about the
organization and the training and the opportunities to become a leader of people. And after training, I was then relocated to
Tokyo, Japan and served a second tour as a broadcaster and enlist with the Far East network. It was the American television station for
all of the military members and their families who were stationed overseas in Japan. It was just an amazing opportunity for me
to grow and develop some wonderful skills that have taken me into my career after leaving
the military. And almost to where you are now, right? Yeah, I would say! Yeah. It’s prepared me because in broadcasting,
I had to do a lot of public speaking and doing events in the community and really having
that engagement with the community. [Pam] As the new director of United Way of
MiamiDade’s Mission United, Laura now helps other veterans transition from active duty
back to civilian life. United Way leadership is seeing the value
in having Mission United be that connector for veterans and their families to all the
resources that are available to us. We actually focus on some key areas that are
what we call pillars. And one of them is employment. So, we want the veteran to be employment ready
when they are reintegrating. Housing is a challenge. You know, affordable housing. So we have partners that help a veteran family
to avoid homelessness. [Pam] And while homelessness among veterans
in Florida has been cut by more than half since 2011, women veterans are still more
likely to become homeless than civilian women and are the fastestgrowing segment of the
homeless veteran population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Female veterans I was gonna say. [Both] Yeah. Are four times likely to be homeless than
someone who’s a nonveteran. And why do you think that is? When we’re coming home or to another community
that we think we can become employed, we’re not finding jobs, we’re not having those support
systems for our children. And so, childcare is an issue. We are dealing with, you know, posttraumatic
stress and not seeking the help or not knowing about the help that’s available and just kind
of getting into that cycle of isolation and not thinking that you have any other options. [Pam] Because of these issues facing U.S.
Women Veterans, in May of 2010, Congress signed into law the “Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus
Health Services Act.” This legislation required the V.A. to examine
the potential barriers to women veterans using and accessing V.A. healthcare services. The study identified nine issues such as transportation,
childcare, gender sensitivity, and the stigma of mental health. One of the main barriers was that women weren’t
actually defining themselves as a veteran. They would come home, go back to their regular
lives, and not actually come to the V.A. and seek medical attention. So, we needed to know why this was happening. [Pam] Rosemary Balaguer is the Women Veterans
Program Manager at the West Palm Beach V.A. Medical Center. She says the study has helped encourage more
female veterans to get the help they need. Back in 2014, we were running like a usual
1,800, 2,000 female veterans. So far since the study, a matter of fact,
we started using the barriers to change how we’re actually focusing on several things. We’re already up to almost 5,000 female veterans
that are actually being seen at the West Palm Beach V.A. They’re amazed of all the actual medical care
that they can receive. Our female veterans are offered the choice
to be seen at our female clinic, our women’s veterans center, and they actually can receive
comprehensive healthcare including genderspecific care. [Pam] And as more female vets began accessing
care, another major crisis facing these women gained attention. Suicide. The most recent data from the V.A. shows that
more veterans died by suicide in 2017 than the previous year, with women veterans committing
suicide at more than twice the rate of civilian women. And while the number of male veteran suicides
in Florida declined from the previous year, female veteran suicides increased. It’s a trend that worries clinical psychologist,
Dr. Monica Monahan, who leads the suicide prevention program at the West Palm Beach
V.A. Medical Center. She says the issue of veteran suicide is complex. Both females and males share some common factors. They have difficulty transitioning from the
military. Something the military is now working on. They both experience combat trauma and untreated
PTSD or untreated mental illness can be a risk factor for suicide. But the females also deal with a lot more
military sexual trauma and they were told in the military not to talk about that. So, it’s an added burden for them. Military sexual trauma, posttraumatic stress
disorder, those are some of our top 10 diagnoses for female veterans. [Pam] One in four female veterans in the V.A.
healthcare system reports experiencing military sexual trauma or MST which includes both harassment
and assault during her service. In its latest annual report on sexual assault
in the military, the U.S. Department of Defense estimates that 13,000 female service members
experience some kind of harassment or sexual assault in 2018 up from over 4,000 in 2017. The D.O.D. says part of the reason for this
spike comes down to more assault being reported. About one in every three military members
now choose to report a sexual assault up from about one in 14 in 2006. I have seen a rise in more female veterans
who are willing to share their MST experience. I think the stigma is lifting. I think women are feeling more empowered and
we’ve been for a while offering services for military sexual trauma and that’s free. Even if they don’t qualify for V.A. benefits,
they can receive services here that are free of charge. [Announcer] Job well done! Welcome home! [Monica] They deserve to get the treatment
that they need. It doesn’t go away. They’ll just keep cropping up and coming back. And the more it goes untreated, the more it
ends up affecting the rest of their health. I think that the V.A., you know, definitely
is hearing. You know that, okay, we cannot be deaf to
this. And so, different hospitals are coming up
with holistic ways to look at dealing with, you know, MST and PTSD as well. [Pam] For organizations like the West Palm
Beach V.A. and Mission United in Miami, building strong community partnerships has been critical
in continuing to support female veterans. It’s a collaboration. It’s not just United Way, but it’s all of
the organizations that we know are doing good work to help veterans to transition and be
successful. It’s that openness to have the conversation
about what they aspire to do after leaving service and being willing to listen. And it is that sense of comradery that drives
Miami Navy veteran, Grecia Smith. While stationed in Japan, Grecia married a
fellow sailor and had her first child. While thousands of miles from home, Grecia
faced many challenges, and like many mothers, suffered from postpartum depression. Now, she’s on a mission to share her story
in order to empower other female veterans to get the help and support they need. I had no plans of college or anything like
that. So then, I kind of went down to the Navy’s
office and then, they’re really good at recruiting you. And eventually, I ended up in Yokosuka, Japan. It was unbeliev. It was my first time away from home, first
time away from my mom, my brothers. It was rough. I think I got depressed the first year. I was like, “Mom, I gotta come home. I can’t do this.” And I would say she’s one of my biggest supporters. I have recently met my husband now when I
was in Florida. So, even going there together and not being
able to have a normal relationship like most couples, it was also challenging. So, we were both in the service. We were both Aviation Ordnanceman. Three months into the relationship, we got
engaged. Two years in, we got married and we served
on the same ship, U.S.S. George Washington. So once I got pregnant with my daughter, I
was taken off of the ship in what they call shore duty. I had my daughter and he was on deployment. So, I had to fly my mother from Florida to
be with me during the birth at least and she was only able to be there with me for three
months and then she had to go back home. You know, it was hard. I still had my fulltime Navy job. I have to go to work, you know, nine to five. That was hard. I couldn’t communicate with him. I, you know, I had long nights where she was
up. I’m waiting by the phone nine o’clock at night
hoping he could call me. Once I kind of started getting used to it,
I find out that I’m pregnant with my son. My daughter was only six months and I was
devastated. I can be open and honest about it now. I was sad. I didn’t want him. There were times I wish I miscarried. Those are things that, you know, people don’t
think could happen to them. So, that was difficult for me to deal with. So then, my son was born a year later and
again, he was on deployment. My mother was with me once again, but three
month later, she had to go. And while she was there, I got postpartum
depression. It hit me the very first night. I left them with my mom and I said, “I don’t
wanna have anything to do with him.” And that for my mom was hard too because,
you know, she had four kids and she did it by herself and she’s like, “Kids are everything.” And I’m like, “I don’t feel that connection.” So, I would say up until he was about six
months, I was dealing with that. I’d emailed my husband and it’d be like, you
know, I have thoughts of committing suicide. Feeling thoughts of just, like, hurting them. And I was, like, why am I feeling this way? This is not normal. And so, so my husband, that took a toll on,
I would say on our marriage. That was probably the toughest part of our
marriage. So then, I sought help. I had someone come to my home and kind of
talk to me and talk me through it. And then I can at least, this is completely
normal. I still have my days where I have anxiety,
I get depressed, I get down, but I’m able to deal with it and cope with it better now
than I did four years ago. When we came back home, we didn’t have that
support system anymore and the military doesn’t have a very good way of putting you back into
civilian life. You know, we go through a one week transitional
training where they teach you how to resume build, but they don’t really connect you with
the proper resources. So, I went on and I did my own research and
I said, “Okay, let me try to find some veteran groups.” Womens Veteran Alliance came up. Fast forward to now and, you know, we’ve built
a good network with other organizations. This journey with starting up Women Veterans
Alliance of Broward County has been a challenging one because it is hard to capture the attention
of the female veteran population. We started creating our events where we’ll
be, like, Boots & Brushes or Boots & Advocacy. So, you know, we’re still highlighting the
fact that we wore our boots and we were on the grounds, but that also that this is what
we’re doing now. For example, our Boots & Brushes, we touched
on a topic of the benefits of art therapy for veterans with PTSD, depression, anxiety. We talked about any traumas that we faced. And so, to know that we’re able to foster
that environment and those relationships with these women and to hear even the feedback
from male veterans. To say, “Finally, we have that for women,”
essentially, that’s what we’re here for. We’re just trying to give each other that
safe space and that sense of familiarity and belonging and I think we’re accomplishing
it. Wow, what an incredible story. And in addition to her work with the Womens
Veteran’s Alliance of Broward County, Grecia also serves on the board of a new Boca Raton
base nonprofit called “Operation120.” Their goal is to provide housing and transitional
life skills and support to atrisk female veterans. Here to share more are “Operation120” founder
and president Renette Verhaeghe and Executive Director Elida Barrios. Women, thank you so much, ladies, for being
with us today to talk about these women veterans. Thank you. Thank you for having us. Yeah. Grecia’s story’s so moving. You and I looked at each other when she started
to talk about her postpartum depression and we were very, we were all very moved. And you said to me, “Her story’s one of many
stories.” So, Renette, talk about why you decided to
start “Operation120” and help these female veterans. Well, just like with Grecia, you hear, you
know, their stories. They come back. They don’t have the support that they need
and even a home to go to. So, we’re opening the first supportive housing
in all of South Florida for our female veterans. I’ve got tears in my eyes. Yeah. I’m so sorry. [Pam] No, it’s okay. It’s really, it’s very Yeah. Very moving. I know that she’s helped your organization. Tell us a little bit about some of the other
women who are part of the organization who are so in need like she has been. Um. Our board members have been building a strong
board so that we can get our housing going. Our fellow veterans are trying to get a community
together so that they have a place for that comradery that, like what Grecia was saying,
that they are missing. Sorry. That’s okay. Um. Yeah. There’s a lot of need, right? Yes, there is. Yeah. Elida, talk about that for a moment. Talk about some of the biggest needs for this
community and how many women would you say you are serving with the organization? Well, we just leased our first home. So, we’re hoping to start bringing in the
clients within a month. We will start with three. And eventually, we would like to serve at
least six. [Pam] Yeah. The house can accommodate up to six. If we had the funds or a big home, we’ll bring
in as many as we could. This is a very expensive program for us to
put together. But, we’ll start small, put a very strong
structure together and build on it. We do know that there’s gotta be a huge need. The V.A. Hospital of West Palm Beach has endorsed us. So obviously, that tells us in the community
that there is an enormous need for such surface. Supportive housing for just female veterans
in the Palm Beach County. Right. And we heard Laura Whitfield from Mission
United in MiamiDade County. Talk about those partnerships and how important
those partnerships are. So talk about, Renette, if you will, how important
those partnerships are to your mission and what you’re doing. Just building that house and the services
that go along with that home. That is not anything that your organization
can do on its own. You need that community help, right? [Renette] Yes. So, talk about how important that is. It’s instrumental. [Pam] Yeah. Otherwise, we would not be successful. We built relationships with Dress For Success
so that the ladies can go get their makeup done, help with resume writing, get their
clothing, Boca Helping Hands with food. Um, I’m trying to think of some other organizations. We will also be working with Apple One. They’re a huge recording company out of West
Palm Beach. They’re gonna help us place some of these
women into real jobs. We have also just reached out to volunteers
how they’re gonna be able to come in and help with maybe, you know, spending an hour with
our clients. Get them off the premises. Maybe have a cup of coffee. Just try to help them reintegrate back into Into civilian life. Into civilian life. Why do you think it is so hard? What are you hearing from these women? Do they, we’ve also heard too that they don’t
think of themselves necessarily as veterans. They’ve just finished doing one job. They’re moving onto the next. And they don’t even necessarily understand
or know what kind of benefits are coming to them because of their status, correct? Talk about that, Elida. Right. So, we hear that a lot of them do not come
forward for various reasons. Sometimes, they feel the system has failed
them. And some of them don’t even realize that these
benefits are available to them. Some of these women are sexually abused or
they’re dismissed from the military and they just do not have the benefits and they’re
just afraid to come forward. Especially those that have children because
they’re afraid their children will be taken away from them. A lot of them don’t even go to shelters because,
again, some of these women have been sexually abused in the military and the last place
they would like to be is in a shelter where there’s men. [Pam] Right. So, there’s all these different obstacles
that they have against them. A lot of them have been very structure while
they serve in the military. They have been train very specifically for
certain jobs. And those jobs, that training is not transferrable
to regular civilian jobs. So, they need some help. Absolutely. Renette, talk about how important the fundraising
is. What kinds of things are you doing to continue
to raise funds so that you can provide homes and provide training and maybe daycare for
the kids. I mean, there’s so many things I know you
wanna provide for these women. So, talk about the fundraising aspect. That’s huge! So, that’s huge too. Yeah. So, we’re a new organization. We’ve been working very hard. I say day and night for the last 15 months. But, we’ve accomplished, I think, a lot of
accomplishments. We’ve hit huge strides. The fundraising, we’ll be putting together
events. We have an event coming up in Boca Town Center
at Johnny Was. And that’s on November 16th. And we’ll continue to do the events. Yeah. What would be your dream as far as how much
money you could raise? ‘Cause you have this home. I’m sure you wanna buy more homes. Absolutely. Correct? Or rent more homes. Now, do you rent it or do you own it? We’re renting it. You’re renting it. Okay. We’re renting for the first year so that we
can start with our program. [Pam] Yeah. Like a soft opening. Um hmm. Go through any complic. Tsk, oh dear. Just kind of work through all the kinks, right? Right, exactly. Right. So, so talk a little bit more, Elida, about
going forward. I mean, what does the future hold, hopefully,
for Operation120? ‘Cause even as Renette was expressing, you’re
really a young organization. You’ve only almost two years you’ve been together. So, talk about the future of the organization. What’s really needed? For sure, funds. Yeah. This is an enormous task that we have taken
on. It’s very expensive because while our clients
aren’t with us, we will provide everything for them. [Pam] Right. Not just the house, but the food, the clothing,
and any transportation. Anything that they may need. Mmm hmm. So obviously, the funds are needed for all
these different programs. So, it is, you know, it’s imperative that
we get the community engaged because there’s just no way we’re gonna be able to accomplish
this on our own. [Pam] Mm hmm. Our dreams is to own our own facility with
many bedrooms because we do not want to turn anybody down. [Pam] Yeah. And that is our biggest fear. And Renette and I talk about this. That is gonna break our heart. The day that we do not have maybe the funds
or the room. And we’re gonna have to turn down women. Right now, it’s only for single women. The goal is to bring in those women with children,
but that it’s also, again, it’s gonna require a lot more funds, bigger space. So, there’s just, for sure, the funds is what
we need the most right now and we are hoping and we’re not gonna give up that there will
be an angel donor that will donate a beautiful house to us. And so ladies, you know, make this dream come
true. Yeah. It will be the ultimate. Yeah, prize for you. Prize for us. And for your organization. So, hopefully somebody watching will be very
moved by what they’ve seen here today and how these women in our community are really
underserved in many ways and overlooked. So, we thank you for being here today. We really appreciate it. And we thank you. [Both] Very, very much. Absolutely. And for upcoming volunteer opportunities,
events, and more on Operation120, visit our Facebook page @YourSouthFL. We’ll also have information on additional
resources in Your South, in here in South Florida, to help out. And we thank you so much for joining us this
month. We hope you’ll join us again in December as
we take a look at some unique ways people are giving back to their communities. Until then, we’ll see you next time.

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