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Operation Home Front helps women veterans heal

With a focus on helping women veterans heal and readapt to civilian life with family ties intact, Operation Home Front supports women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Operation Home Front is designed to help female vets surmount their problems – through specialist counseling, rehabilitation services, and health and psychological support.

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"In terms of their treatment needs, it's completely individualized," Mr. Dixon says. "Some may be [there] 60 to 90 days. Some may be involved in treatment for a year."

The housing facility is expected to open around next spring and will include seven two-bedroom residential units, plus common living and dining areas.

A key component of the program is room for the children.

"The motivation and engagement of women is difficult if the children are elsewhere," says Dixon. "If they are with her, that helps keep her in treatment. And it's important for the child because the bonding and attachment and all those critical nurturing things ... aren't being broken."

The children – generally expected to be under 5 years old – will share their mothers' quarters. Residents will be encouraged to help look after one another's kids, but the nine-strong staff will also include qualified child-care providers.

Florida is home to some 139,000 female veterans – a number that is rising. Larri Gerson, women veterans coordinator for the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, served in the US Air Force in the 1970s, when women accounted for 3 percent of the military. Today, that proportion is five times greater.

"This has been a man's place for many years, the VA.... Now, it's having to change," she says.

Perhaps having learned the lessons of the Vietnam era, the military now places more emphasis on helping members with psychological needs. But drugs prescribed to ease anxiety, depression, or pain from injuries have sometimes led to addiction problems, while some vets turn to illegal drugs and alcohol.

"For women who joined the Reserve or Guard, it started as a little extra money in their pocket – and then it became a war," Mrs. Gerson says.

"Before they left, they had a job and a relationship. They come back, and they're no longer in a relationship, no longer have a job – and can't find one – and family members who have been looking after their children want to give them back.... They are facing a big transition, and they are left fending for themselves. And that's why they need this facility."

McPaul, the Navy veteran, is now working for the VA herself, as a housekeeper at the Orlando VA Medical Center. Her children are grown up, have successful lives and families, and harbor no bitterness over their mother's "lost" years.

"It really took a bottom, a hard rock bottom, for me to get it through my head that drugs and drinking were forces of evil," she says. "This kind of program gives women a roof over their head and an opportunity to be surrounded by people that have solutions."

[Editor's note: One of the original paragraphs in this story, as well as the original photo caption, mischaracterized the program that Lou Ann McPaul used to get back on her feet.]

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