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Why homecoming can be particularly hard for female veterans

March 4, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
In the return to civilian life, many women find that veteran services fall short of their needs. Unemployment rates for female veterans are higher than for other women, as well as for male veterans. Female veterans are at least twice as likely to be homeless than women who haven’t worn a uniform. Special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports on the challenges they face.

GWEN IFILL: After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, many veterans face an uphill battle finding work in civilian life. There’s been an increase in efforts to help ease their transition, but one segment of the veteran population is often overlooked.

Special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Katrina Holley finds satisfaction in bringing order to people’s lives.

KATRINA HOLLEY, Air Force Veteran: Ever since I was in the fourth grade, I loved cleaning the house. I can remember vacuuming before I would leave for school.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Her attention to detail is just one of the skills she honed during 11 years in the Air Force. Holley’s small business in Hillsborough, North Carolina, cleaning homes calls on some of those skills, but for years she’s sought a civilian career that better values her military experience, a background that often catches her clients off guard.

KATRINA HOLLEY: Oh, my goodness. Well, I think so often people are surprised because they don’t think about female veterans. We are coming more into the light in 2014 and 2015 and after Iraq, of course. But I think that it is interesting, because it adds such diversity to your life. That experience is something that I value, value so highly.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The transition to a civilian career may be most problematic for female veterans like Holley, who face the greatest challenge in the job market.

Female veteran unemployment rates now are higher than civilian women’s, and a full 20 percent above their male veteran counterparts. More than 150,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet veteran services have not fully caught up with women’s needs. Even those vets who do seek help once they return to civilian life often find the support they need is not yet there.

A pilot program here in North Carolina backed by computer maker Lenovo and run by the nonprofit Dress for Success hopes to help change that. It aims to help female veterans look and feel their best in job interviews.

For Holley, Dress for Success is a chance to get a new uniform for a new mission.

KATRINA HOLLEY: Yes, I love it.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Dress for Success launched this program by organizing a roundtable to understand these former service members’ needs.

WOMAN: The more information you share with us, the better we will be able to develop programs that fit your needs. And that’s really what this conversation is all about.

TENITA SOLANTO, Navy Veteran: The most difficult was just trying to translate what you did in the military to the English — you would work on all this big equipment, radar, satellites, and then you get out here and everyone is like, what is that? I don’t know.

LAURA PARKINSON, Air Force Veteran: I did have one person who hired me because when she found out I made bombs, she was like, that is cool.


LAURA PARKINSON: And that is how I got started working as a lobbyist and doing the job I am today. But it was because this one woman thought it was neat.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Some of these veterans who have successfully made the shift to civilian life now help mentor other women. They know the road back can be rough.

GLENDA CLARE, Navy Veteran: They are not making enough money. They are not finding the jobs they need. Their skills are not translatable, or they don’t know how to translate them. And some of them are kind of shell-shocked.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: At another gathering of female veterans near Washington, D.C., the bond of a sisterhood formed in service is just as strong. But these women have something other than years in uniform in common. All have been homeless after struggling to find work.

ANNA SALANIKA, Navy Veteran: That first two to three years after getting out was the worst. I was scared to tell people, yes, I just got out of the military, because I didn’t know if it was — that’s the reason why they weren’t hiring me, because they felt like I probably had, like, PTSD or something. It was just — it was so hard.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Four years ago, Jas Boothe founded Final Salute, which offers housing and services to women vets. An Army veteran, Boothe lived out of her car after being diagnosed with cancer and losing her home in Hurricane Katrina.

She says America is failing its female veterans.

JAS BOOTHE, Army veteran: I raised my right hand and I took an oath to never leave a fallen comrade. This is why I am doing this. There’s no celebrity or anything involved in me doing this. But I am doing this in response to the lack of the American people being involved.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Demand for rooms at Final Salute far outstrips what Boothe can provide. Female veterans are at least twice as likely to be homeless as women who never wore a uniform.

Anna Salanika is a Navy veteran who found herself trapped in a marriage filled with violence and abuse.

ANNA SALANIKA: And I tried to hold a lifestyle by myself, tried to handle my apartment, tried to take care of the kids, just tried to do everything independently,

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: She lived out of her car before finding a haven here. Salanika now works full-time and takes a full college course load as she fights to get back on track.

ANNA SALANIKA: Life is good, but if it wasn’t for Jas and Final Salute, I don’t know where I would be right now.

WOMAN: This is the living room we spent our nights in when I moved here, because my room is just back here. She spent a lot of days sitting on this sofa watching cartoons.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Final Salute was Chiquita’s only home before heading to war.

So you deployed to serve America in Afghanistan from a house for homeless veterans?

WOMAN: I did.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: So you were homeless the evening before you deployed?

WOMAN: Boots on the ground from here to training.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Boothe says the solution cannot just be left to the military.

JAS BOOTHE: It wasn’t the military’s job to teach me how to be a civilian. America is supposed to welcome me with open arms and help me incorporate back into civilian society. The Army did their part. The Navy did their part. The other services did their part. It’s America that is not doing their part.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: In North Carolina, that push to help women veterans succeed in the civilian world continues.

For Holley, who is feeling ready to tackle the challenge of growing her business, a new suit is just part of a new start.

KATRINA HOLLEY: And now I just feel part of something bigger, part of something important, part of something that is motivating and supporting and nurturing. And those are important things to me.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: For PBS NewsHour, I’m Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.