Struggling at home

Homeless women veterans in Georgia slowly, steadily rise in numbers.
Brown, who served on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf between 2009 and 2013, is temporarily homeless. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Brown, who served on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf between 2009 and 2013, is temporarily homeless. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Krystina Brown, 32, served on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf between 2009 and 2013.

She wore a blue jersey on the flight deck, meaning she was among the plane handlers and tractor drivers that prepared the aircraft for missions.

She was good at launching jets into the sky. Launching her own life has been more difficult.

On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, Brown doesn't plan anything special. She will wake up in her car, walk her dogs, leave them with a friend, take a run, lift weights and go to work selling clothes at a discount department store.

At the end of the day, she will pick up her dogs from her friend, and bring them home.

Home, right now, is a black Nissan Altima. Karat (a Doberman mix) and Dinero (a Chihuahua/weenie dog mashup) will bunk with Brown in the back of her sedan, parked inconspicuously in a Cobb County shopping center, and try to sleep. She’ll probably crack the window, even if it’s cold, because Karat and Dinero keep her warm.

Any other plans for Veterans Day would seem beside the point to Brown. "I don't have any of my uniforms. I could get free pancakes, but I'm not interested."

Krystina Brown, wakes up before dawn each day with her two dogs, Dinero and Karat.  BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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A wiry, college-educated woman from Columbia, S.C., Brown is among the 93,000 female veterans in Georgia, and among the uncounted group who have had trouble back at home.

Women who have served in the military have the same challenges in transitioning as their male counterparts, but with a few added stresses.

Their family lives are frequently more complicated, especially if they are single mothers or the main custodial parent. They experience, in large numbers, a form of post-traumatic stress that now has its own acronym — MST, or military sexual trauma.

And, as a small, but fast-growing minority among veterans, they are sometimes overlooked.

"Women are invisible as veterans," said Amy Stevens, 65, founder of the support group Georgia Military Women and former director of psychological health for the Georgia National Guard.

This, despite fact that women veterans are, according to Stevens, more likely to be underemployed than their civilian counterparts, more likely to commit suicide, and more likely to end up homeless.

Amy Stevens (second from left, in white hair and black jacket) is a counselor and organizer of Georgia Military Women, a group of female veterans who stage meetups and go on outings as a way to bolster camaraderie. CONTRIBUTED: AMY STEVENS

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Angela Robinson, 47, knows all about sleeping in shopping center parking lots. “We’re driving around in the middle of the night trying to find a somewhat safe place to stay,” she said, recalling the time in 2015 when she and her daughter Dennobbi lived in their car.

“A couple of times we had security tap on our window. I’d make up something. I’d say ‘We fell asleep,’ or ‘we’re leaving.’ I would never tell them I was homeless. I’d make up a lie.”

Robinson, of Marietta, served with the Army in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, then later with the South Carolina National Guard and the Georgia National Guard. Sexual harassment in the military made her suspicious and less trusting back home, she says, which has had an impact on her ability to get a decent job.

She’s also dealing with hearing loss and a back injury. But the Marietta resident said she ended up homeless because of bad advice, rent assistance programs that fell through (or were simply crooked) and her own failure to take care of business.

Now, she works part time in administration at Fort McPherson and volunteers, teaching young people economic common sense so they don’t make the same mistakes. And she hopes her daughter Dennobbi, now 19, can get over the stress of that chaotic upbringing.

Even highly educated former military can find themselves in a bind.

Stevens, who came to Atlanta in 1995, has a doctorate in education and two masters degrees. A Navy lieutenant, she had been the executive officer of a reserve center. “I was a smart girl. I had commanded thousands of people. When I got out, I wanted a regular job, but I had difficulty transitioning back to the regular world.”

Running out of money due to medical expenses, she put her Gaithersburg, Md., house on the market, and it sold overnight, leaving her without options. Her special needs son stayed with a classmate’s family. She got a P.O. box, and found someone through her church who would rent her a room.

Then she worked in telemarketing to get out of debt. After six months, a job opened up with the U.S. Department of Labor. Later, she began to use her training as a counselor with the Georgia National Guard.

Talking to members of the Guard, she discovered that the same harassment she had experienced as a young officer was still going on. “Every duty station I went to, there was something inappropriate that happened. Did it end my world? Not necessarily. I had a commanding officer that insisted on dancing with me and chomping on my ear. But I did not work for him. So, I could push him off and say, ‘No’.”

Today, the military has a greater awareness that there is a problem for female soldiers and has taken steps to provide remedies. Veterans Affairs has begun installing advocates for women veterans in each facility and offering to counsel free of charge for military sexual trauma. The state of Georgia recently created the Women Veterans Office to do the same thing at the state level.

Harassment still happens, “but now, when it does, it can be addressed, whereas in the past you had to suffer in silence,” said Maj. Carmin N. Nowlin, executive officer and chief of staff with the 787th Combat Sustain and Support Battalion stationed north of Baghdad.

Maj. Nowlin has deployed three times, the second time when her oldest child, Osiris, was only three months old. For her, one of the chief challenges was leaving her children behind.

She called from Iraq, during a very mild day of 80-degree temperatures, to talk about her own experiences.

“In February ‘05, he was born, and I deployed in June. It was traumatic … I had to wean him right before I left … I went to Iraq back then, and I still had milk left.”

The next time she saw Osiris it was January 2006, seven months later, and he didn’t know her. “At the reunion on the parade field, he would look at my husband for reassurance: ‘Is she OK?’ That broke my heart even worse. He cried and cried. But after a week or so, we were right back in it. I carried that guilt for a long time. I had to do some work on myself, and understand: that’s what I signed up for.”

As an executive officer in charge of a battalion of 400, Nowlin has not experienced the discrimination others report. “For me, personally, there were never any doors closed,” she said. “The opportunity has always been there.”

She credits, in part, her 17 years of service, giving her seniority over many. “The longer you stay in, you end up being the person in the room who has the most information, the most experience. My work speaks for itself. Also, I’m always calling for that seat at the table, making sure my voice is heard.”

Capt. Donna Rowe was the head nurse in the triage unit of a field hospital near Saigon during the Vietnam war. "I saw things no one should see." CONTRIBUTED: DONNA ROWE

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Capt. Donna Rowe, 75, of Marietta, said her experience comes from a different era. Women didn’t fight alongside men during the Vietnam War, though women were killed. “I served in combat. I had gunfire coming into my triage area, but my job was not a front-line soldier.”

What was the same, she said, was the necessity of maintaining strict boundaries with the soldiers. Rowe was head nurse in the triage unit of the Third Field Hospital in Saigon. “There was no stepping across the line with an army nurse,” she said. “Anybody who stepped across the line, we were to snap back like a little cobra.”

She became well-known for helping save a Vietnamese infant who survived the massacre of a village by the Viet Cong, a story told in the documentary film "Under the Shadow of the Blade."

Rowe served as a local advisor during the planning of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial but was disappointed when the addition of the “Three Soldiers” statuary did not include a female figure.

Veterans Day means acknowledgment, but acknowledging women is relatively new. The traditional view of a veteran is a male, said Dan Holtz of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, even though the landscape is changing.

When veterans are heralded in monuments, the figure on the plinth is usually a man.

"We decided we were going to get our own monument," said Rowe. Joining fellow former Army nurse Diane Carlson Evans in the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, Rowe helped raise money and awareness and also worked to get acceptance from the Parks Service.

In 1993, 7,000 women and 38,000 men marched past the White House to the dedication ceremonies for the memorial, composed of statues representing three uniformed women helping a wounded soldier. “It was the first time a lot of the women had seen the wall,” which includes names of eight females killed during that conflict, said Rowe. “It was the most powerful memorial event I’ve ever been involved with.”

For a while, Krystina Brown worried that she might not survive her own private war.

Things fell apart for her a year ago. Sadness kept her in her apartment, and her work life suffered. She decided against renewing her lease and tried living with a friend, but “you find out that not everyone can handle two dogs.”

Today, things are changing. She uses her gym membership as a place to shower as well as work out. She keeps her clothes in a public storage unit. Her dogs have been a huge help. “If I cry, they lick my tears,” she said.

Krystina Brown walks her dogs before dawn each day.  A  veteran, Brown is temporarily homeless, and said she sleeps in her car with her dogs, Dinero and Karat.   BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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She discovered that running has been a great treatment for her depression, and so she runs six miles a day. She reads Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” and she is saving enough money to get her own place in two months. And she hopes to get her clothing line, Choice 1950, back off the ground.

“I am not a quitter,” she said recently, sipping water at a Starbucks on Cobb Parkway, her short spiky dreads held back with a headband. “This has made me more fearless than ever.”

“It doesn’t matter what you’re going through. You’ve got to just keep going.”