December 9, 2013

Many female vets struggle without seeking help from VA

The VA tries to reach out to the growing number of women who have served as many face sexism as well as mental health and financial issues.

By Annie Sweeney
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — When Xatavia Hughes, the granddaughter of a military man, went to serve in Iraq, she was prepared to prove herself to the male soldiers.

As more women join and leave the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that female veterans face more homelessness than their male counterparts.

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“My grandfather was tough and strong. That is how I was brought up: ‘Don’t let it get to you. Show them,’ ” the 28-year-old mother of two said.

And she did. It was only after she returned from a war zone to Chicago in December 2010 that Hughes began to feel tested.

A month after returning, Hughes found herself in an improbable spot: living in a dorm room at the Pacific Garden Mission, the sprawling homeless shelter on the city’s West Side, shielding her two sons from addicts and criminals.

“Often when I was in shelter there was a bunch of veterans,” Hughes said of her six months of homelessness. “When we get out, I thought we were supposed to be taken care of. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is how our life is going to be?’ I never felt that I would do so much good and then have to be pushed aside.”

Hughes was like so many women over the past decade who stepped up to serve as the country launched two wars. They saw it as a way to get ahead in life and forge a different future.

Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population, a trend expected to continue. Their return has posed several new issues for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many are single moms. They have been adversely affected by the scandal of military sexual trauma that affects 1 in 5 women who serve. They report higher rates of mental illnesses and homelessness. Many don’t feel comfortable with the male-dominated VA.

And though they already served in dangerous, life-threatening positions, the recent decision to allow women to fight in combat zones means even more are likely to return with complex and severe injuries that need attention.

Local VA hospitals have improved care and increased services for women vets, even down to their design and architectural elements. A new housing complex for veterans with families is scheduled to open next summer, offering some relief. The VA launched a hotline just for female vets in the spring.

And in the latest recognition of the need for services, a long-standing community mental health organization, Thresholds, this year expanded its existing veterans services, assigning more case workers to connect with female vets struggling on Chicago’s streets.

The need to reach female vets was identified in a May 2012 VA report as “acute,” given the rapid growth of the population, not to mention that they are now suffering injuries similar to male soldiers.

The report cited higher rates of homelessness among women and lower access and enrollment in VA health care.

Thresholds secured a $350,000 grant to provide a range of services, from therapy to employment assistance, for an even more specific population: female vets with mental health issues.

“They have a lot more going on in their lives,” said Lydia Zopf, director of the veterans project at Thresholds. “They are more vulnerable.”

Thresholds offers the option for veterans to work with female staff.

Among the Thresholds clients is Hughes, who spiraled into homelessness about a month after returning home. Her $3,500 in savings went to expenses that included moving costs, winter clothes for her boys and rent payments to family members who offered her temporary and cramped spaces.

Meanwhile, her anxiety and stress were mounting. Fireworks on the Fourth of July sent her diving for cover. She mourned numerous losses in her unit.

“I was so happy to see my kids, my family,” she said. “But it was bittersweet because a lot of people didn’t get a chance to see their kids.… I felt guilty. I feel guilty.”

(Continued on page 2)

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