In her first tour to Iraq in 2006, Sgt. Mutiara Santiago volunteered to train with 11 other women to search Iraqi women and handle detainees. Right before deployment, her mission changed, and she was among the first women to be in a field artillery unit.
Yet, her life as a soldier in Iraq wasn’t quite as challenging as what she faced at home. This past May, after her professional peak and 11 years of active service, she returned to Washington state a single mother, unemployed and homeless.
With the number of women veterans increasing, one of the biggest challenges they will face is homelessness, which is often preceded by struggles with unemployment in the transition back to civilian life.
Last month, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Executive Dow Constantine both declared a state of emergency for homelessness in Seattle and King County. One Night Count found more than 3,772 men, women and children without shelter on Seattle streets last winter: a 21 percent increase over 2014.
While veteran homelessness increased 17 percent in Seattle from 587 veterans in 2011 to 685 veterans in 2014, according to the King Country Committee to End Homelessness, 2015 saw a slight drop to 668 homeless veterans.
Liza Narciso is the women veterans coordinator for the Washington Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). She said the greatest challenge women veterans in the state face right now is the rise of homelessness, which especially impact women with children. The stigma of poverty can often prevent women from getting help before they become homeless.
“Women are so resilient, so they don’t self-identify that they are homeless, and that they need help,” she explained. “Sometimes, they exhaust all of their resources that they can before they go out and seek help.”
After her active duty and stint in Colorado, Santiago and her two children stayed at a friend’s house in Lacey, Wash., but life there soon became toxic when a relational conflict took a turn for the worst.
“It was bad. I needed to vacate that house,” she said, not wanting to elaborate more.
Because she was no longer on active duty and transitioning into the Army Reserves, she was living off of her unemployment checks. This was just enough to pay for her car, but not enough to keep her storage unit.
“Everything I accumulated in 10 years, I lost,” Santiago remembered.
For U.S. Army veteran Stephanie Morgareidge, who served in the 3rd Infantry Division when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, unemployment was a major barrier in the transition back to civilian life. At a tender 18 years old, she was deployed just six months after her high school graduation.
She remembers the first night U.S. troops invaded Iraq from Kuwait. As she stood on Iraq’s southern border, missiles lit up the sky for three hours from a nighttime sky to one bright as day.
“It’s so flat in Iraq compared to Washington,” Morgareidge recalled. “You could see 20, 30, 40 miles ahead of you, if not more.”
After an 11-month deployment and finally finishing her service at Fort Lewis in 2005, she resided in Skagit County where she experienced an entirely different kind of stress.
“[My husband and I] were learning how to budget for the first time in our lives,” Morgareidge said.
While she was in the military, she had the assurance of a paycheck, a roof over her head and three meals a day. No matter what you did with that paycheck, you had that security, she said.
But at the end of her service, she felt lied to.
“Oh, when you get out of the military, everyone wants to hire veterans,” she said she was told. “You have so much skill and leadership and experience, that everyone will be lining up to give you a job.”
She was unemployed for four months.
“I went to dozens of interviews and I was getting so disheartened and frustrated,” she said. “I finally ended up getting a job at Home Depot as a supply receiving clerk.”
Morgareidge worked part-time in Burlington making minimum wage, which in 2005, was $7.35 an hour.
Two years later, she joined the veterans group at Skagit Valley College, where she was a student, and got a job at the Boys & Girls Club of Mount Vernon. Engaging and giving back to her community helped her make the full transition back to civilian life.
When looking for employment, veterans come up against a perception that they are carrying baggage home from military service. To curb this misconception, Narcisco said the solution is to educate the hiring managers about veterans’ competencies.
“[The VA] is trying to partner with nonprofit organizations and [for]-profit corporations to say, ‘Hey, when you hire a veteran, it’s a win-win situation.’”
The military stresses teamwork, leadership, integrity, safety and respect, according to Narciso, an army veteran herself who served between 1980 to 1986.
“When you tell us to do something, we do it; we follow through,” she explained.
Veterans have also had the experience of working all over the world in different environments and cultures, and can bring diversity and inclusion to the workplace, said Narcisco.
“There is no more of a diverse place to work than in the military,” she said.
The idea of advocating for veteran jobs and competencies appears to be catching on. Several Seattle-based corporations have excellent veteran hiring programs within them, including Boeing, Microsoft and Alaska Airlines, said Narciso. Starbucks even announced last month that they will extend free tuition to spouses and children of veterans.
Additionally, more nonprofit programs specifically serve the needs of women veterans, like the Seattle-based Outreach and Resource Services for Women Veterans (OARS), an organization that helps female veterans acquire services they need from government agencies and offers a two-year entrepreneurship training program, among other services.
For Julia Sheriden, co-founder and president of OARS, serving this population is personal. As a veteran of the Marine Corps herself, Sheriden was the first woman trained as a “combat-ready field cook,” she said.
She was homeless for eight months after she was discharged, and when she went looking for help at the Tennessee unemployment office, a male veteran told her to go home and stop bothering them. A woman in the same department saw her plight, and was able to help her.
Now, she gives her home number out to the veterans she works with, once helping a woman for five years to file her claim for VA benefits, she said. OARS now serves four to 10 veterans on a weekly basis, and all seven of the board members do this on a volunteer basis, said Sheriden.
Though services for women veterans have come a long way, glaring institutional service gaps still exist for women veterans who are homeless.
Many shelters in the Seattle area set aside beds just for male veterans. And there are no emergency shelters specifically for women veterans in King County, according to Sheriden.
“It’s harder for a female, especially with kids,” Santiago attested.
She tried going to a homeless shelter in Washington, but she said it was mostly for single people, not women with children.
In the end, a recently retired veteran found out about Santiago’s situation and offered her a house in Lacey. She now lives there with her children and a roommate to help cover the bill, has a steady weekday job and serves at the Marysville Armed Forces Reserve Center one weekend a month.
“Everything is getting better for me,” she said.
No one doubts the bravery and strength it takes to go overseas and face war. But the rocky transition back to civilian life? That takes whole other level of courage.
This story has been updated since its original publication to correct an inaccuracy. In the original story, it was reported that Stephanie Morgareidge recalled seeing mortars light up the sky for three hours the first night U.S. troops invaded Iraq from Kuwait. Morgareidge actually watched missiles light up the sky.