Believe it or not, many women Veterans do not self-identify as Veterans. According to Dr. Laura Miller, psychiatrist and medical director of reproductive mental health for the Veterans Health Administration, this is due in part to the misconception that if women did not engage in combat, they are not considered Veterans.
“Some women Veterans may be unaware of their eligibility for benefits or be hesitant to approach VA for care,” said Dr. Ann Elizabeth Montgomery, investigator with VA’s National Center on Homelessness among Veterans. “But women Veterans are eligible for the same VA programs and services as male Veterans, given that they meet other eligibility requirements.”
Army Veteran Loretta White didn’t know she was eligible for VA benefits. She left the military in 1989 because of a domestic violence situation. After 10 years in the Army, she felt completely isolated from the civilian world and did not know where to go or who to talk to. Confused and scared, White decided to write a book, “My Sylent Screams,” to convey what she was going through.
Soon after, White moved to Colorado with her two children, but the effects of the domestic violence she had experienced left her unable to concentrate and maintain employment, and she became homeless.
“My journey to recovery first began when I attended a Stand Down event where I was told I was a Veteran,” said White. “I was unaware of this event, which is huge for Veterans, especially if you are homeless.”
Finding assistance through HUD-VASH
In 2010, White relocated to Orlando, Florida, but continued to live in homeless shelters. Eventually, in response to urging from a local civilian, she decided to call VA for assistance.
She was connected with a VA social worker who advised and helped her enroll in the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, which helps Veterans and their families who are homeless find and sustain permanent housing. White took his advice and entered the program.
“Throughout that year, every single social worker that I had treated me like family,” said White. “It wasn’t just me either. I talked to the other Veterans and they felt exactly the same. It was the best program I’ve ever been in.”
Healing and recovery through artwork
As a means of healing, White began creating art in 2015. She uses objects that she has on hand, including boxes, bottles, and egg cartons. She soon discovered the therapeutic power of art and its ability to bring people together.
“What has been found in women Veterans who have experienced trauma is a link with housing instability and the need to build resilience,” said Miller, the VHA psychiatrist. “This may include remaining socially connected, engaging in a larger community, and feeling a sense of purpose in life.”
After realizing her creative potential, White moved to North Carolina. She wants to help other Veterans by creating an art community where people could share their creations.
“I always wanted to own an art gallery, but this isn’t just art — it’s a way of healing,” said White. “A lot of people donated stuff to me because they knew I was a Veteran and how I wanted to help other Veterans.”
Looking to the future
White is aiming to open her own art studio for Veterans to display their artwork without the pressure of competition. She is also looking for her first home to own, and she has written and published 20 books.
“I want people to see the journey I went through,” said White. “After going through so much hurt and pain, to be overwhelmed with love … it’s hard to explain it.”
March is Women’s History Month and National Social Worker Month. Join VA and the Center for Women Veterans on March 31 at 2 p.m. ET for a Facebook Live event to learn about the unique needs of women Veterans and how VA can address them.
- Women Veterans looking for more information about relevant VA benefits and services should call the Women Veterans Call Center at (855-829-6636).
- Learn about the HUD-VASH program and enrollment eligibility at va.gov/homeless/hud-vash.
- Visit VA’s Veterans Experiencing Homelessness website to learn about employment initiatives and other programs for women Veterans exiting homelessness.
- Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness should contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).
- For regular updates and stories like this, subscribe to receive the Homeless Programs Office monthly newsletter.
Heather Monroe, LCSW is a Community Engagement Detail Representative with the VHA Homeless Programs Office.