This has been a tough week for the Los Angeles VA; In a report that hit the news on Tuesday, the department’s Inspector General said investigators auditing the Westwood facility found staffers had shredded eight benefits claims without processing them first. Government officials have been eyeing the VA for some time. Earlier this month, Representative Ted Lieu joined senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer in calling for legislation that would help address a need for additional resources for veterans by creating housing on the VA campus. Kristine Hesse, a retired military sergeant and the Director of Women Veterans Outreach for the National Veterans Foundation, and Susie Carder, President and COO of Motivating the Masses, are tackling the issue of veteran wellness another way: by pooling their experience to support women who served. We asked them about their unique partnership last spring.
We know from recent headlines how challenging it can be for veterans leaving the military to transition back into civilian life. What was your experience like, Kristine?
K: I got out of the military three-and-a-half years ago. The first year was a little challenging. I retired out of London, and I’m not from Los Angeles, so I moved to a new place. I’m used to doing that, but when I didn’t have a job to go to or a way to make a network I really struggled. I didn’t know anything about the veteran’s world and what services were available to me.
Also, it was the first time that as an adult I had to pay rent, because for 24 years I was either in base housing or the military gave me money to pay for it. My daughter didn’t have her license yet, so I was driving her to and from college and I would go to Starbucks until she finished and then take her home. She would ask me, “Did you talk to any other adults today?” And I was always like, “No.” I didn’t have anybody to talk to.
The first time I made a connection in the community was when I went to the local Employment Development Department office—every EDD has a vet rep. That was the first time I talked to somebody that spoke ‘vet.’ He understood what I went through and why I was struggling.
How did you go from not having anyone to talk to to becoming the Director of Women Veteran’s Outreach for the National Veterans Foundation?
K: I got my placement at the NVF, and that’s where it all started. I started inviting myself to all the [city] meetings in Los Angeles to try to figure out what was out there. Nobody was talking about women veterans, so I asked my boss, “Can I start a women’s program?” He said, “Run with it.” Every time people were talking about needs in the community, I was like, “Women veterans are here, too.” I remember for the mayor’s 10,000 Strong initiative, he hosted a discussion panel of veterans. Well, they were all men. So I got up there, in a room of like 100 people, and I told them women serve, too, and we have different needs. Half of the audience went, Oh, that’s right, women serve. And the other half went, Thank god somebody said something. They were just waiting for a woman to be the representative.
How do you think Los Angeles rates when it comes to awareness and services for veterans?
K: I think the community is talking about it. They’re interested in our well-being and there are some support services. That being said, the process of finding employment or housing is so challenging. As many resources as are available, vets have a hard time finding them. When I got out I went to the VA, and after that I was like, “I’m never gonna do that again.” It was too overwhelming and it didn’t seem to be very friendly to women.
Do female veterans face challenges that male veterans don’t?
K: I don’t want to bring up military sexual traumas as just a women’s issue, because both men and women have been experiencing it for years, but a lot of us have had some kind of trauma. And that’s impacting our ability to transition out. It’s not like, I had this experience and when I get out all I need is treatment. It’s, I’m getting out, I have kids, I need a job, I need to find a place to live. Years down the road everything starts to boil. Then, when we go to seek services, our mental health needs aren’t being met. It takes months to get an appointment in the VA.
I know that’s where you come in, Susie. Your company provides personal and professional coaching. Why did you decide to partner with Kristine?
S: In the military you’re told what to do, and all of a sudden you come into this world where you get to make up the rules. You get to be whatever you want to be. Independence can be scary. But women—especially women in the military—they want to be the wife and the mother and the sister and the partner and the daughter and the worker—this super achiever. I needed to find experts that could come in and speak from that standpoint.
Kristine, you were involved in counting the homeless population on Skid Row earlier this year. Why?
K: Women veterans are the highest growing population of people who are homeless. If you’re coming back [from the military] and having a good transition but you don’t have a job or you don’t have a place to stay, you’re gonna end up on the streets.
A lot of us are just one breath away from being homeless. If I can meet these veterans and I can get them the services they need when they need them, they’re more likely to get into temporary and then permanent housing.
Bot the city and the county have committed to ending homelessness for Los Angeles veterans by the end of 2015. Do you think it will happen?
K: I would like to say yes, but I can’t. I hesitate with that. We can end homelessness for those people that want to come off the streets.
S: There’s an even a bigger issue, which is suicide rate, and no one’s really talking about it. Of all the suicides in our country today, a staggering 20 percent are veterans. We in our communities need to stop ostracizing the veteran community.
K: I’m so glad you mentioned that. When I got out people used to say, “Thank you for your service.” What I really needed was somebody to say, “Welcome back.” I needed someone to say, “My church does tea on Tuesday.” Once you start getting connected with people you get a network and then you don’t feel so alone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.