Shalini Madaras, who lost a son in Iraq, overcame grief by helping women vets

A new facility for women veterans in Bridgeport, Conn., honors her fallen son while helping homeless war vets in need.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Shalini Madaras stands in front of the Pfc. Nicholas A. Madaras Home, a residence she established for female veterans in Bridgeport, Conn., and named for her son. The home opened this fall on what would have been his 25th birthday.

When Shalini Madaras pushed the polished handle and opened the door of the Pfc. Nicholas A. Madaras Home, she opened a new door for homeless women veterans.

The facility honors Ms. Madaras's oldest son, killed by a roadside bomb in 2006 in Iraq.

Yet, for Madaras, the home bears more than her son's name: It celebrates his spirit. As Connecticut's first female-only housing for women veterans, the neat three-story house in Bridgeport is a haven for veterans recovering from physical or emotional combat scars, Madaras says.

Fifteen female veterans from the greater New England region call the house home. Each must have been honorably or generally discharged from the military. They may stay a maximum of two years.

"This is something that never existed before," says Madaras, who lives in nearby Wilton, Conn. "There is such a huge need for some of these ladies coming back from these conflicts. They have nowhere to go."

For a time after her son died, the soft-spoken Madaras felt that she had nowhere to go. But she decided she didn't want to stay in darkness.

"Since that day we found out about Nick's death, I needed to surround him with a positive light.... I needed to make it so he would be alive in everybody," Madaras says. "When I felt myself slipping into black depression, I would ask: 'Is this what I want for him?' It's not."

So two years after Nick's death, Madaras founded the nonprofit group Female Soldiers:Forgotten Heroes (FS:FH). With the help of the Veterans Administration (VA) Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program, and donations from citizens, businesses, and dedicated volunteers, the project slowly became a reality.

Nick had come home on leave just weeks before he died. The day he headed back to war, he stopped to look back at his family. It wasn't that he wanted to stay, Madaras says, but she sensed he had a new appreciation for his life and family.

A soccer player, Nick wanted to give soccer balls to Iraqi children. He never had the chance. But neighbors decided to see his plan through. Today "Kick for Nick" has put more than 32,000 soccer balls in the hands of Iraqi and Afghan children.

A tight-knit group, FS:FH works with Homes for the Brave, a home for male veterans that is also in Bridgeport.

"Shalini Madaras is our own special hero. Without her own powers of persuasion I don't know if we'd have this project," says Joy Kiss, chief executive officer of Homes for the Brave. "Through her presentations, and our presentations, we've really been able to reach different parts of the state and raise awareness."

Between 6,000 and 8,000 women vet-erans are homeless nationwide, the VA estimates, including 200 to 300 in Connecticut. Female veterans are 3.6 times more likely to be homeless than the average woman.

Nationwide, fewer than a dozen veterans' facilities are devoted to women.

The project proved to be an arduous journey for FS:FH. The group withstood three rejections for potential sites for the home in three years, in part because no appropriate zoning category existed.

But Madaras persisted. She wanted the home to be in a residential neighborhood.

Finally last summer, Bridgeport's Zoning Board of Appeals approved a house at 66 Elmwood Avenue. A nearby bus line makes it easy for veterans living there to reach jobs and travel to the VA hospital for appointments.

When Madaras and her husband, Bill, officially opened the home Oct. 21, on what would have been Nick's 25th birthday, it was a dream come true.

"I kept putting myself in the shoes of someone else – what if that were my daughter?" Madaras says. "We want to show residents that the whole community cares about them and is there to support them."

The 15 veterans receive counseling, skills training, and health care. There is room for young children to live with their mothers, and there are facilities for three handicapped residents.

"Angel is the right word to describe Shalini," says US Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut, standing on the porch of the newly opened home. "We make a statement here today; we send a message. Maybe only 15 veterans will live here, but we send a message to America and to the world that female veterans will not be forgotten. They will not be forsaken."

Some time after Nick's death his sergeant contacted the Madarases. He wanted to tell them about that November day in 2006. "The sergeant told us ... that Nick had died instantly," she says. "The sergeant said Nick 'had such a peaceful look on his face, such a smile on his face.' "

She experienced an odd, but comforting, feeling. "For a flash of a second, I wondered if Nick saw it all then," she says.

"Did he see the troops sharing the soccer balls? Did he see the house? I believe that he saw it all – everything that was going to happen."

• For more, go to:​/FemaleSoldiersForgottenHeroes

• For more stories about people making a difference, click here.

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