For Female Vets, a New Fight at Home

Women veterans four times as like to be homeless as men.

March 14, 2010, 7:18 PM

March 14, 2010 — -- Mickiela Montoya served her country for seven years. A military policewoman in Iraq, she faced mortar attacks and gunfire But when she came home, her bravery and her skills were useless.

A single mother without a college degree, she found herself on the streets.

"I don't fit the typical stereotype of a homeless person or how a homeless person would be or look," said Montoya, an articulate and attractive 24-year-old.

Neither does Alicia Watkins. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, she wound up homeless while struggling to cope her physical and emotional wounds.

"Your family, they want the person that they sent off to the war. And they will never get that person back," Watkins said. "So it's just a matter of trying to get them to understand that I will never be the same."

There are an estimated 6,500 homeless female veterans on America's streets, double the number of a decade ago, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Women veterans are four times more likely than their male counterparts to wind up homeless.

Dr. Diane West runs one of the few programs in the country specifically designed for homeless women veterans at U.S. Vets in Long Beach, Calif.

"Right now we have a program for up to 30 women veterans and I have a waiting list all the time," West said. "The women are coming back and they're depressed. Some of them are suicidal. Some of them don't know how to parent at all and they can be abusive to their own children."

Women vets face all the same issues as their male counterparts: post traumatic stress, sleeplessness and battle injuries. But they face additional challenges unique to them.

Many, like Montoya, are single mothers.

Montoya said she had to leave the army because she had no one to take care of her 2-year-old daughter.

"I went to the VA to ask if they had any type of daycare help or resources and they said no, she's not a veteran, we have help for veterans," Montoya said.

Finding a good paying job with money for child care has been tough, she said.

"My friends went to college and now they have careers," she said. "I dedicated seven years of my life to the military and it's as if it were for nothing."

Homeless Female Veterans on America's Streets

West's program saved her from hitting bottom, Montoya said.

She called the program a miracle, but for Montoya's there, 49-year-old Carmen Black, the miracle almost came too late.

Black left the military struggling with issues including unresolved sexual abuse she suffered as a child, and fell into drug abuse and prostitution, she said.

"When I finally decided that I wanted to get clean and I went into the first rehab, it was all men, VA," Black said. "It's hard to share with a man about what I'm feeling about being raped."

That's the other unique challenge faced by many women vets. A VA study found one in three report they were raped or sexually assaulted while serving.

Montoya said a fellow soldier threatened to rape her in Iraq. She scared him off by telling him she had a knife.

"I think I can say confidently that every single woman in the military has dealt with sexual harassment at some time in their career," she said.

West says many of the women she has worked with came from chaotic families and joined the military because they believed it was a place where they would be protected.

They thought "they'd have a gun and nobody would mess with them again," West said.

"But there's a power structure in the military," she said. "So they're in the same situation and they gravitate towards the same types of people and they're at risk for being abused and having more trauma while they're in the military."

The U.S. Vets program helped get Black back on her feet. She said she is sober and has gone through the U.S. Vets Renew Program for women veterans with sexual trauma.

Black said she now has a good job at the VA hospital in Long Beach, has regained custody of her 12-year-old son and soon will leave U.S. Vets for her own place.

For now, all three women have a roof over their head. But thousands of other women vets are still in trouble.

"I thank god for the American public for wanting us home," Watkins said. "But when we get here, we need help."

Help they believe all veterans deserve.

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