After leaving the U.S. Air Force, Staff Sergeant Barbara Barnes spent years living in fear of stray shadows and sudden noises that could trigger flashbacks to trauma from her days of military service.
Barnes never served abroad or saw combat. She served as an administrative officer from 1984 to 1990, processing legal documents on military bases in Louisiana and Kansas.
The trauma began in 1985, she says, when a commanding officer sexually assaulted her. She reported the attack to his superiors but felt too embarrassed to seek counseling. She said that the officer was reassigned to another unit, but for her, the trauma remained.
“I thought that I would just never get over that stuff, that it would just haunt me for the rest of my life,” Barnes said.
She turned to alcohol and started to abuse prescription drugs. She struggled with addiction, lost contact with her three children, and landed on the streets of Charleston, S.C. And during her long downward spiral, it never occurred to her to ask for help as a military veteran.
She wasn’t the only vet to descend into this particular nightmare.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 6,500 female veterans are homeless and that as many as 20 percent of them were sexually assaulted while in the service. The department has declared military sexual trauma “an epidemic” and a major risk factor for post-service homelessness.
Women are four times more likely to become homeless after leaving the service than their male counterparts, according to the VA.
While homelessness among all veterans has declined in recent years, the number of homeless female veterans doubled between 2006 and 2011, according to a report earlier this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
In 2011, the federal Veteran’s Health Administration responded to the crisis by establishing a National Call Center for Women Veterans.
This year, the VA’s Women Veterans’ Task Force highlighted homelessness as one of the key issues facing female veterans in a draft of its “Strategies for Serving Women Veterans” report, which the VA has submitted for public comment.
Wearing a badge with her rank and service information, Barnes sat in a conference room at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV) and recalled trying to drown her traumatic memories in alcohol.
“I hit the bottom. When you get to the bottom of the wine bottle, there’s still a hole left. There’s not enough wine in the world to take care of that,” she said.
Barnes says she had been in her share of rehabilitation programs, but it was not until she connected with the VA that she was able to access comprehensive services that met all of her needs.
She didn’t even think of herself a veteran until 2006, when a woman approached her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and told her that the VA had programs to help people like her.
As the prevalence of homelessness among female veterans has become apparent over the last few years, state and federal agencies have taken steps to connect veterans with services they need.
“We know that women veterans are at risk for homlessness at a higher rate than their male counterparts. We know that their needs are often diffferent. But at the same time, it’s more common for them to not necessarily identify themselves as veterans,” said Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness (ICHH) director Elizabeth Rogers.
The ICHH and the Women’s Veteran’s Network, a state agency that serves as a central resource for female veterans across the state, are working together to reach out to those who are experiencing or on the verge of homelessness.
“[T]here is a need for finding creative ideas for reaching people in the community before they become homeless,” said Rogers. Outreach efforts could occur at the welfare department, at programs distributing emergency food resources, or even through local school systems, she said.
Another NECHV resident, Buck Sergeant Jane Garrow, never considered herself a veteran either, despite having served three years in the air force. By the time someone suggested she seek veterans’ services—23 years after her honorable discharge—she already had spent two years living on the streets.
“Not a lot of women serve overseas in wartime, so we didn’t think we qualified as veterans,” said Garrow, who served as a jet engine mechanic in California from 1978 to 1981.
Garrow recalls meeting many social service providers over the years as she struggled with alcoholism and homelessness, but she did not recognize that she qualified for veterans’ services.
“It wasn’t just us that didn’t realize that we were vets, it was the people trying to help us,” Garrow said, adding with a hint of frustration, “I would go into detox every once in a while, but nobody told me about the VA.”
Garrow says she joined the air force because she had grown bored with working on an assembly line building missiles for the military contractor Raytheon. She recalls hearing the Village People song “In The Navy” night after night, promising pleasure, treasure, and the opportunity to learn science and technology.
In 1978, she enlisted in the air force with hope of gaining new skills that would translate to a better job when she later returned to civilian life.
During her service, she says, she worked her way up to become a jet engine mechanic, served as the first woman to work in the maintenance hangars in California, and graduated to senior airman.
Upon her discharge, however, she learned that her military training did not count toward certification to work on civilian aircraft. She returned to her native Cape Cod where she struggled for years with alcoholism and ended up on the streets.
Today she has secured a housing voucher with the help of the housing program at NECHV and is in the process of looking for an apartment.
The New England Center for Homeless Veterans first started seeing women seeking services in the mid-1990s, said NECHV director of community affairs Stephen Cunniff. In 1996, the shelter added a separate and secure women’s residence with 16 beds, a private TV room, and two showers for women awaiting permanent housing.
“There’s nothing that we need that we can’t get from here,” Garrow said. “They may not offer it here, but they know who to call to get it.”
Any woman with an honorable discharge from any branch of the U.S. military can access a case manager and can participate in shelter programs, including housing assistance, employment training, legal services, medical care, and meals, says Helen Wooten, NECHV director of case management.
Wooten adds that NECHV’s reputation for extensive services and rapid housing placement has prompted many out-of-state organizations to refer veterans to Boston.
Barnes says that a case manager at the VA in New York City suggested that she move to Boston and see if NECHV could help her.
For the past couple months, Barnes has been sleeping at a transitional shelter in Jamaica Plain and commuting to NECHV for additional services. She has entered counseling, which she says has helped her deal with her military sexual trauma. She reconnected with her children with the help of the Boston VA and is currently in the process securing her own subsidized apartment with the help of her case manager.
Barnes credits NECHV with providing her with the tools and resources to help herself.
“I know every time I walk through that front door that I’ll never leave the same again. I’ll be a changed woman. I’ll be an empowered woman.”