Female veterans fight for recognition

By Keila Torres
STAFF WRITER, CT Post, March 2, 2010

BRIDGEPORT — Saying that Lauren Cust had a hard time adjusting to “ normal” life last May, after evading gunfire and suicide bomb threats on a daily basis during her Army deployment in Iraq, is an understatement.

Cust, 28, who married and bought a house with her now- husband Michael Cust last year, said coming home from the service and trying to readjust to her roles as daughter, sister and wife was “ probably the worst part of the deployment.”

“ Something as simple as fireworks bring about panic attacks,” the Shelton resident on Monday told nearly 200 students, faculty and visitors gathered at a forum in Housatonic Community College’s Beacon Hall. The program was organized by the school’s Psychology Club.

Cust — job development coordinator at Homes for the Brave, an agency that provides housing and social services for homeless vet­era ns — was one of several speak­ ers, including U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D- Conn., and Mayor Bill Finch, who discussed the unmet needs for housing and other programs for returning female veterans.

Dr. Laurie Harkness, director of the Errera Community Care Center at the West Haven Veterans Affairs Hospital, said 30 to 50 percent of returning veterans face readjustment issues that, if not addressed, can lead to more serious problems, including post­traumatic stress disorder.

“ Homelessness among female veterans is growing at a much faster rate than homelessness among male veterans,” Harkness said. Of the approximately 4,000 homeless veterans in the state, about 200 are women.

Joy Kiss, executive director of Homes for the Brave, said the organization plans to open the first transitional housing site specifically for women veterans in the state next year. The VA now pays for beds in shelters throughout the state to be set aside for women veterans.

The transitional housing project, proposed for 893 Clinton Ave., is part of a project called Female Soldiers: Forgotten Heroes. It will have about 16 beds for women and will accommodate women with children under the age of 2. Like the Homes for the Brave site on Park Avenue, the women’s facility will also offer behavioral health services, computer training, job development and more.

During the HCC forum, Kiss in­vi ted those in the audience to at ­tend next Tuesday’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting to show their support for the proposed women’s transitional housing project, which is on the agenda. The session gets under way at 6 p.m. in City Hall.

Kirk Wesley, 24, who is studying education at HCC, said he was shocked by the statistics presented by the panel. The needs of fe ­male veterans are “ like a secret,” he said. “We don’t really put a spotlight on women veterans and what they go through.”

Gary Brown, 25, and Erika Torres, 19, said they attended the forum for a class. Both admitted that they had never really considered women veterans’ experiences in the military to be similar or equal to men’s. “ I didn’t even really believe there were as many women troops as there are,” said Brown, a human services and psychology major.

Cust said many female soldiers are pained by the lack of support from the community. “Many believe that women are not on the front lines or under direct fire,” Cust told the audience, “ I am living proof ... that we live on the front lines.”