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.

Molly Dempsey/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
US Navy veteran Lou Ann McPaul struggled for 15 years with homelessness and addiction after her military service before finding help. One new option for help that other women veterans could consider is Operation Home Front, which is expected to open around next spring.

For 15 years, there did not seem to be light at the end of the tunnel for US Navy veteran Lou Ann McPaul.

She was addicted to alcohol and drugs, but she pretended to others that she didn't have a problem – even when she was not properly there for her three children and when she was arrested for possession.

Today, things are different. The drug and alcohol problems are behind her, and she has a home and a job – all thanks to a program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I was so overwhelmed and amazed by the help that was available to me," she says.

With women now accounting for 14 percent of active-duty military personnel and 17 percent of the Reserve and National Guard, the need is increasing for programs specifically tailored for women, as the program for Ms. McPaul was. Yet health and welfare services for veterans have traditionally been male-oriented, and they've struggled to keep up with the military's changing face.

Anxious to start closing the gap, the VA and Florida's Department of Children and Families are jointly funding the creation of Operation Home Front. It's a $1.6 million transitional housing facility in Cocoa, where 28 women veterans at a time could reside while undergoing substance-abuse and mental-health programs.

In a unique twist, their children will be allowed to live there alongside them. That's something McPaul says she would have taken advantage of, had there been a rehabilitation program that accepted children back when she needed help.

"This will be the only facility of its kind in the state of Florida, if not the only one in the nation," says Todd Dixon, director of community affairs at the Center for Drug-Free Living, a behavioral health-services organization that will run Operation Home Front.

The reasons that women veterans might need such a place are wide-ranging. A common one is domestic strife: That was the case for McPaul, who turned to alcohol and cocaine "to kill the pain" after an unexpected divorce. In other cases, women need help with the physical and emotional stress of having served on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another potential factor: Sexual abuse in the military is on the rise. According to a Defense Department report in March, such incidents had increased by 11 percent over the previous year, and 87 percent of the victims were female.

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

"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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