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Women of War: The rise of female veteran homelessness

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Posted at 7:06 PM, Apr 27, 2012
and last updated 2012-04-27 20:15:42-04

Ten years ago, Jillian Hatch could never have imagined being a homeless single mom, without a job or a place to live. Back then, she was at the peak of her Army career.

“Being a medic, it was very exhilarating, empowering, especially being a female and driving a tank,” said Hatch.

Jillian was a part of the initial invasion of Iraq back in 2003. Her experience on the front lines of war shows how much military gender roles have changed over the years as more women move into combat positions.

“Lots of teamwork, male or female, I couldn’t tell. I could never separate male or female, because it really didn’t matter how long your hair was,” said Hatch.

Still, experiencing the horrors of war brought on demons Jillian was never able to shake.

“Being in a whole different place, you’re not prepared for it,” said Hatch. “You had to put emotions aside, every single one of them—you couldn't even put them in your back pocket for fear of losing them.”

Jillian came back from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and for seven years, it went undiagnosed. Her life spiraled downward, and she eventually hit rock bottom after losing custody of her daughter.

“I was in South Carolina living in my car. ‘Walmart Lot Six’ is what we called it. It was very humbling living in my car,” said Hatch.

That's when her father, a Vietnam Marine, stepped in and brought her to the Hampton VA domiciliary, designed to help homeless veterans get back on their feet.

“They deserve better. No veteran should return from defending our nation to a state of homelessness or unemployment,” said Dr. Priscilla Hankins, chief of mental health for the Hampton VA.

Dr. Hankins says in the past few years, the number of homeless female veterans coming to them for help has tripled.

More rooms are constantly being added to the Women's Wing, but Jilian says there are still so many more out there like her who should seek help.

“It’s fear, fear of having to step back and say, ‘I need help.’ It’s okay to ask for help, it doesn’t mean you're weak,” said Hatch. “The strength I’ve gotten from doing this is unreal. I can walk with my head held high like I did when I was in the Army."

Now, Jillian is counting down the days until she is ready to leave the domiciliary, go back into the civilian world and finally be with her daughter. She is prepared to take back her life.

Because of the large military population in Hampton Roads, the rate of homelessness among vets is very high. According to the VA, it's the highest in the entire Mid-Atlantic region of the country.

If you are Vet in need, or know a friend or family member who needs help, call the Veterans Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1.