BOB FAW, correspondent: For women who serve in the American military, especially those with children, deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the toughest challenge can be when they come home. Veteran Chiquita Pena:
CHIQUITA PENA: We’re very proud people in uniform. We want to keep ourselves together. We want to be the problem solvers, the fixers, you know, the leaders. Well, when you go from being a leader to being a person that’s needs the help, that needs the hand up...
FAW: That’s rough.
PENA: It’s rough, and it hurts, you know.
FAW: The Department of Veterans Affairs says that from 2006 to 2010, the number of homeless female veterans doubled. Veronica Witherspoon is one of an estimated more than 15,000 women vets who ended up homeless.
VERONICA WITHERSPOON: We go to war, protect our country, and we come home to nothing.
FAW: After deployment in Afghanistan, Navy reservist Witherspoon ended up living with her mother and felt, she says, like “damaged goods.”
WITHERSPOON: How did I become homeless? Like where do I begin to look? How do I pick up these pieces, because at that point I felt broken, like somebody just pushed me down, and I just fell apart.
FAW: Deployed abroad twice, Army reservist Chiquita Pena, whose husband was also abroad, was jobless and needed a place to live with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Nayeli. Final Salute got her back on her feet.
PENA: We stereotype homelessness with, you know, for lack of a better term, a hobo or bum or someone who’s a wino or drinking on the street. This is the new face of homelessness.
FAW: What do you mean by that?
PENA: My face. I’m what homelessness looks like. What Final Salute does is keep you looking like this before you end up on the street.
FAW: Jaspen Boothe, a former Army captain, not only understood the problem—she decided to do something about it.
JASPEN BOOTHE: We have a core set of principles called “Warrior Ethos.” A portion of that Warrior Ethos is to never leave a fallen comrade, and that was my main reason for putting my own money upfront, because these are my sisters. I took an oath, and I’m bound to that, and I had to honor my commitment.
FAW: Four years ago, with $15,000 from her own pocket, she opened a house for homeless female veterans and named her organization Final Salute.
BOOTHE: Once you're dead, you don’t know if you’re getting a final salute. For some people, they need that final salute now. They need that act of respect in their time of need.
FAW: Final Salute, funded now by private contributions, is in Alexandria, Virginia and houses up to eight single women and women with children. Housing and food are provided free for up to two years, although a lot of women stay for less time. Veteran Cynthia Stevenson:
CYNTHIA STEVENSON: She helps you with everything you need. Financially, she gives—they have classes, you know, to help you learn how to take care of your finances. Classes on how to, you know, get your mind together, get prepared for the world, you know, especially if you’re coming back from any deployments.
FAW: At Final Salute no one is coddled. There’s a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and violence and biweekly sessions with a social worker.
SOCIAL WORKER: “We can write, you know, a list of our top five things we want to accomplish in 2015.”
FAW: The emphasis, says Boothe, is on personal responsibility.
BOOTHE: They clean the house themselves. We don’t prepare their meals. They cook. They feed themselves and their children. So, again, we’ll give you what you need to succeed, but we’re not here to give you a handout or to hold your hand. We’ll offer them truly a hand up, but they know that it begins with them.
FAW: Thirteen-year veteran Boothe knows a little something about starting over. In 2005 not only did Hurricane Katrina destroy everything she owned, she’s also a cancer survivor. But all that, she says, wasn’t the hardest part. Though Veterans Affairs supplies homes for male vets, very little was being done for women.
BOOTHE: The hardest part of that experience was being told that because I was a woman veteran there was nothing available to me. That’s what really got me beside myself, because I was basically told because I wasn’t a man I was not as important, and my service wasn’t as important.
FAW: What kept her going, she says, was her anger, her determination, and faith.
BOOTHE: I believe God puts you through certain things in order to prepare you for a greater mission later on in life. He doesn’t give anyone a failing mission or a failing calling. However, he doesn’t give you a roadmap either. So especially dealing with nonprofits, you know, sometimes you don’t know where the money is going to come from or if it’s going to come, but he hasn’t failed me, and so that’s why I always say it’s divine intervention.
FAW: The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has vowed to end homelessness this year for veterans, says there’s an “acute” need to improve services for female vets. The General Accounting Office found that 60 percent of shelters for female vets do not accept children. Both the VA and the GAO found that in those shelters basic protections like locks and separate floors for men and women were often lacking.
BOOTHE: To put you in a transition housing facility where there are hundreds of men and a few women trickled here and there—how is that even safe or logical? And some of these facilities are cohousing women with registered male sex offenders. Like how is that, I mean, who does that?
FAW: At Final Salute, one of just five shelters like it in the country, Boothe says she has been able to help over 350 female vets, like Haley Zimmerman, who after deployment in Afghanistan says she would have ended up on somebody’s couch.
HALEY ZIMMERMAN: I can save money, I can finish my school. It allowed me to be able to accomplish the things that I need to, to move forward.
FAW: Final Salute helped Veronica Witherspoon, who now has a job.
WITHERSPOON: It’s kind of like being in a sorority. You have that connection because you’ve all been through that basic training. You’ve been deployed.
FAW: Could you have done it without Final Salute?
WITHERSPOON: Without the support of Final Salute and my family, if they weren’t there, I don’t think I would be the person I am today.
FAW: And Chiquita Pena, now successfully housed with her daughter and husband.
PENA: They kind of show you the light at the end of the tunnel, like hey, you know what? It’s not that bad. Look, there are other service members just like you. You’re not a dirt bag. You’re not, you know, a failure.
PENA: You are not a failure.
FAW: Jas Boothe hopes that someday Final Salute will go out of business. For now, she concedes, that’s little more than a pipe dream.
BOOTHE: We were created to fill an American void. If I’m still doing this 20 or 30 years down the road, we are still not getting it as a country, and we’re just making a poor effort as a society to take care of all our veterans. We have enough wealth, power and influence, you know. We can liberate other countries and clear up their natural disasters, you know. Women veterans are now America’s natural disaster.
FAW: As more and more military women return from service, Jas Boothe will continue to give them both a final salute—and an opportunity.
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly this is Bob Faw in Alexandria, Virginia.