More than 3,000 female veterans are living on the streets of the United States. They represent the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s homeless population. “Her War” tells the story of some of those women and the battles they face when their tours of duty are over.
Narrator Mimi Chakarova: Los Angeles, California: City of dreams, City of Angels. But right on the edge of this shimmering skyline is L.A.’s infamous Skid Row.
There is a growing population here: homeless veterans of American wars. Today, more and more of the homeless vets are women. California leads in numbers, pointing to a larger nationwide crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of women who serve in the military return home with post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and military sexual trauma, known as MST.
For them, the war continues, in silence and often alone.
[On-screen text: Her War: The Invisible Crisis of Women Veterans]
Steve Harvey morning radio show (playing in background): Maybe in His test, there are some lessons to be learned by everybody else. The only reason God is allowing it to happen to you is because he knows you can handle it.
Narrator: Renee Banton grew up in the suburbs of L.A. Her parents were middle class and strict. At age 22, Renee joined the Air Force.
During her four years in the military, Renee says she was sexually assaulted. After a slow and gradual spiral into drugs, Renee ended up on Skid Row. For more than a decade, she was homeless, addicted to crack cocaine.
Steve Harvey morning radio show (playing in background): I just sat tight. I let God handle it.
Renee Banton: I haven’t been to Skid Row in nine years, and just to go back down there – I’ve never had a reason to. But my prayer is to go back will help me to be able to understand where I’ve been and where I am now.
Narrator: There are 1.8 million women vets in the U.S. today. In recent years, the number of homeless women vets has more than doubled, making women veterans the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in the United States.
How has this happened? This is their story.
Banton: We’re going to be venturing into the war zone, you know, where, where it all kinda went wrong for me.
I actually spent 10 to 12 years right here. I would go – there’s a liquor store around the corner, that’s where I’d get my daily beer. And I’d search these four corners of 5th and Main to see who was gonna have the best dope that day and who I could get the best deal with.
Narrator: Skid Row is unforgiving. Dealers and gangs rule the streets. Violence is no stranger here.
Banton: I’ve actually seen people thrown out. I’ve seen a lady thrown out of – I don’t know what floor she came from – landed in the middle of the street. Word was they didn’t pay the dealer, and the dealer took action.
Banton (to man): Do you remember me? How you doing?
Man: How you doing, girl?
Banton (to man): I’m good, I’m good.
Man: Word? So how you been doing?
Narrator: Renee did what she had to do to feed her habit and survive on the street.
Banton (to man): I’ve been great. Nice to see you.
Man: Nice to see you, too.
Banton: So actually, that was one of my tricks.
Narrator: Renee finally found her way to the VA. She enrolled in rehab. She’s been clean for nine years.
Banton (to woman in office): Your sponsor has to have working knowledge of whatever book you’re going into, is what I’m saying.
Woman: Can’t you have more than one sponsor?
Banton: Yeah, I do.
Banton (to woman): OK, so we’re gonna work on …
Narrator: Today, Renee runs the very same treatment center that helped her get back on her feet.
Banton (to woman): If someone is constantly giving to you, you’re never going to break that cycle …
Narrator: New Directions’ women’s program is supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s the first in the U.S. designed specifically for women veterans recovering from homelessness and addiction.
Banton (to woman): OK, you know, what I actually want you to do, I want you to …
Narrator: Renee not only directs the program – she counsels women in crisis, drawing upon her own experiences.
Banton (to woman): You’re sounding like something has clicked that’s like. “Hmm, maybe I do need to hang out here a little bit longer.”
Narrator: But as Renee admits, the first challenge can be the hardest …
Banton (to woman): So, what’s your preference for treatment?
Narrator: … finding the women veterans who need help.
Outreach worker 1 (on phone): Hello?
Narrator: In L.A. and around the country, census reports count the homeless population.
Outreach worker 1 (on phone): Every bridge has a person under it except for Willow.
Narrator: Data such as gender, race and mental illness is collected.
Homeless man: I’m just gonna lay here and die. That’s what I’m gonna do.
Outreach worker 1 (to man): No, we’re not gonna let you die like that. You know, we’re gonna get you off the street …
Narrator: According to numerous government reports, last year, the number of homeless women veterans more than doubled. Today, more than 3,000 are living on the street.
Outreach worker 2 (to man and woman): Do either of you two know any female vets?
Woman: What, what’d you ask?
Outreach worker 2: Female vets?
Man: I’m a veteran from the ghetto.
Narrator: Yet after several days surveying the greater Los Angeles area, these outreach workers found none.
Banton: It is the million-dollar question: Where are the female vets? You know, everybody is looking for them. Programs to provide female vets with services, they all have open beds, so to speak. So when you come to these places and you begin to look for them, it’s almost like they’re in hiding.
Narrator: But Renee knows they’re out there. And she, like others who run programs to help homeless vets, know exactly why these women stay invisible.
Karl Calhoun (director veterans services for Volunteers of America, Los Angeles): The issues that female veterans who are homeless struggle with are the same issues that women who are homeless struggle with in general. Young females on the street who are homeless, they’re targeted.
The homelessness world is not a safe world. So females – by design, out of survival, need – have to sort of remain in the shadows and unseen.
Kori: I kept myself secluded. I would try to blend in with the other homeless people. It was just very frightening. You know, I’m so glad that I survived it.
Narrator: After several months of homelessness, Kori reached out to the VA. She grew up in Compton, California. When Kori turned 18, she joined the Air Force. She was deployed to Saudi Arabia, where she provided armed security on the air base.
Kori: I had three weapons which I carried: the M16, the M9, the M203 and also the 60 machine gun. The weapons were put back after I went back home. I, um, miss those weapons.
Narrator: After military service, Kori returned to Compton. Things started to fall apart.
Kori: I wasn’t able to adjust to civilian life. It was just too hard for me. I would wear my uniform, like a blanket, like a security. Not knowing where the next meal was gonna come from – it makes one very emotional. It’s sad. That’s a sad life.
Calhoun: They may have some very, very highly skilled expertise in the military, but oftentimes, it is not transferrable to the commercial job market.
I couldn’t imagine how difficult it is to fix a tank, but if that’s the only thing I know how to do, it’s going to be hard for me to find a job – especially if I went into the military when I was 18, right out of high school.
So a soldier will process out of the military formally. If they’ve had no strong support network – with family or a spouse or friends – it’s very quickly that they’re going to be in severe financial trouble. They get behind on rent and a couple of bills and the next thing you know, they’re under an immediate crush of deciding whether or not to empty what little savings they have or to cut bait and do what many of them believe will be a short-term stint of homelessness while they regroup and get themselves together. That short-term stint is quicksand.
Mayra: I think there was very few, very small factors that could have led me in either direction. I had, I had the possibility of being there. I was already drinking a lot, I was already running out of money. I wasn’t doing anything but sleeping and – sorry. I can see how it’s easy to get there.
Narrator: Mayra is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She joined the Marines against her family’s wishes. Mayra served in combat in Iraq. Like many others, she returned home with PTSD.
Mayra: I felt lost. Like, I felt like this wasn’t the life that I wanted to come back to, this wasn’t the life that I left, so why is this the life that I came back to?
And then I think being a woman, I always felt like, “Well, the guys don’t have to go through this. The only reason I’m going through this is because I’m a woman.” And that just proves, you know, that we shouldn’t be in the military, and I can’t, I can’t live up to those expectations. And, you know, they’re like, “Of course, she’s going to get help. She’s a woman, she needs to get help.”
It took me about a year to start getting help.
Banton (in group meeting): This program is going to force you to be responsible, or you’re going to choose not to be. It’s all your choice. But as much as you can get taken care of here, we’ll send you back into society with less of a headache.
Narrator: Once women veterans enroll in Renee’s program, the process of healing can begin.
Banton (in group meeting): All of this is in your control, but it’s patience and it’s just constantly chipping away and chipping away.
Narrator: These days, women are entering Renee’s program with more than addiction and PTSD. Many come with trauma the military has only recently acknowledged.
Cassandra: We call it mil- – MST – military sexual trauma.
Narrator: Cassandra grew up in New Orleans. She watched her friends get pregnant one by one. That was not the life she wanted. Thirty years ago, the Army was her ticket out.
Sexual assault in the military is not a recent phenomenon. While stationed abroad, Cassandra believes she was date-raped by two fellow soldiers who slipped something into her drink one night.
Cassandra: I woke up the next day with two guys in the bed, and I’m in the middle, and then here’s a sergeant in the room, you know, hollerin’ at me because – you know, like, “What’s going on?” But I got reprimanded and had to shovel snow, you know, in the wintertime, had privileges and some of my money taken, behind just something that I really didn’t know about. But it gave me a different outlook of the military at that point, because who can I really tell?
Calhoun: There’s such a huge stigma on reporting, not just because of the event itself that a woman has experienced and to have to talk about that violation, but also, you know, more than 50 percent of the time, the person that they are reporting on is their immediate superior. So there’s so much weight against reporting the event, and then if they do, they are reporting into a system that has its own insular structure of justice.
Kori: My supervisor, he felt like he could take advantage of me because I was young. At times, he would come by and he would have sex with me while we would be out on the dunes. I held all that inside for years until I came to this place, and I was able to finally get out some of the things that had been done to me.
Dr. Lee Liebman: For a lot of women, the service is not safe. If you send somebody over to Afghanistan and Iraq, which isn’t a safe place, at least they should be safe on the other side of the wire, where they are, you know, in the Green Zone, so to speak. They should be able to be safe there, that nobody’s going to harm them. But they get harmed there, too. And that’s not fair.
Narrator: The VA confirms that 1 in 5 women veterans have experienced military sexual trauma. The Pentagon puts that number at 1 in 3 women. But many in the field insist the toll is even higher.
Calhoun: About 75 percent of those clients that we see have experienced military sexual trauma.
Lauren: Who are you gonna tell? I’m 17 years old – 18 at the time – in Germany, not too many other girls around.
Narrator: Lauren has been in a transitional program for three months. She says that for years, she was sexually assaulted by her supervisor. Time passed, but the trauma remained. Little by little, she unraveled until she wound up on Skid Row.
Becoming homeless doesn’t happen overnight – it’s gradual. A woman exhausts her resources, turns to drugs to numb the pain.
She was abused in the military. Now, she’s preyed upon on the streets, until she no longer thinks of herself as someone who served her country – only as an addict, lost.
Banton: Two or 3 o’clock in the morning, and you’re walking the streets either trying to get money or find dope. You didn’t have to go to sleep. Time didn’t mean anything to you. All that mattered was getting your drug and staying high for as long as you could on a daily basis, year-round. That was my life, and I was OK with that.
I used to sit here, pipe and lighter in pocket. This was always a quiet street and still seems to be quiet in nature, not too much traffic. But behind us is a police parking lot.
Narrator: For years, Renee was invisible on Skid Row. And she knows time is critical for women vets who end up homeless. The sooner a vet gets off the street, the higher the chances of steering her away from deeper trauma.
Kiese: This is not how I picture myself being. My family doesn’t know – if you told my family this is what’s going on with me, they would be shocked. Because this is not – you know, I always, I always seem to have it, you know, everything in control.
Narrator: Kiese joined the U.S. Navy to pay for school. After 11 years in the military, she returned home with PTSD. Kiese couldn’t find a job. She slept in her car, hiding the truth from her family.
Kiese: I guess I could say it’s a pride thing. I’m used to taking care of myself, and I don’t want them to feel like I’m a failure. And I don’t want them to feel like they have to take care of me because I don’t want to put that burden on them. That’s why.
Narrator: Kiese was homeless for one month. She found help at a vet program early enough to avoid addiction and abuse. But initially, she thought she had no one to turn to.
Banton (in group meeting): Tell me. Talk to me. Disagree with me. Tell me I’m not hearing you.
Narrator: And this is a common thread in the stories of homeless women vets: Many don’t even realize they qualify for VA services.
Veronica: I’ve been out of the military for nearly 10 years, like, nine years. And it’s like, “I’m not a veteran, I’m a young female. Young females aren’t veterans – those are old men.” And, you know, I struggled for a long time – “I’m not a veteran, I don’t deserve, you know, this and that.”
Banton (in group meeting): It’s absolutely none of your business what anybody else thinks about you.
Banton: l never looked at myself as a vet, right? Even though I did four years, completed, got the honorable, I didn’t think of myself as a vet.
Banton (in group meeting): In the beginning, I’m just like you – worried about this, judging, what they saying and whoop di whoop di woo.
Veronica: That’s what this place is really beautiful for – you know, it’s that, “I did serve my country, I am a veteran.” They’re telling me, “You deserve this.”
Kori: I was 18 – 18 years old, ready to go about life.
Mayra: I joined the Marine Corps in particular because I wanted to be part of something unique and something that everybody looked up to and respected.
Lauren: My mom was of the old school – you’re out after high school. And I tried to get a job, couldn’t get a job, and I didn’t want to be homeless.
Cassandra: I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana – from the 9th Ward, the Desire Projects. My expectations of going was to have fun and grow and learn and do some different things I hadn’t done outside of the ghetto.
Liebman: When I ask people, “Why’d you join the service,” most people say, “To get away from my neighborhood,” or “I had no prospects, I had no job, I had no money, and I had no place to go. So I joined the service.”
Narrator: Renee joined the armed forces to leave home – to serve her country, to be independent. Skid Row interrupted those dreams.
Banton (on Skid Row): When I was here and living here, I only felt a part of the world of addiction. But now I feel like, “Wow, I’m a ‘regular person,’ ” with heavy quotations on that. This visit is a turning point for me. It’s what I needed to experience just to see 1) I don’t fit in here, 2) I’m not welcome here, but 3) I’m a person who made it out.
Wow, this is cool. This is cool. It’s exciting.
Kiese: A lot of successful people have horrible stories, horrible beginnings, you know. So I told myself, “This could be a phase, my phase, my horrible story.” Maybe one day I can have a better story to tell all the people that felt like there’s no way out, there’s no hope or whatever.
Narrator: And each woman’s story opens the door for others who’ve been silent for years, fighting a war within.
Kori: Just keep looking up, girls.
[On-screen text: This documentary is dedicated to Renee Banton and to her work with women veterans.]