LA CROSSE, Wis. -- An increasing number of women fill the ranks of the U.S. military. But when they come home, many of those women face a new battle: homelessness.
One in five female veterans in the U.S. is considered homeless. That doesn't necessarily mean they're all sleeping on the streets or in their cars. They could be living with family or friends, but they're not living independently or in a permanent home.
Now, a group of local volunteers are coming together to try and change that.
"When we ask veterans to protect our country and then we let them sleep on the streets and don't have a home, that's just not what the American people are all about," said Chairman of the American Legion Auxiliary Homeless Women Veteran Program Kathy Wollmer.
About 20 female volunteers from La Crosse and neighboring counties are training to be the first line of defense for struggling female veterans in our area. It's a program called Making Connections- Women to Women. It's a collaboration between the Wisconsin American Legion Auxiliary, Wisconsin American Red Cross and the Madison Vet Center. And these volunteers are training to be a connection between women veterans and their benefits.
"These are services that they've earned. They're not an entitlement. They're not a handout. They earned these services. And so they're there for them," said Service Armed Forces Manager of the Western Wis. Region of the American Red Cross Mary Liz Murphy.
The training teaches these volunteers that female veterans are less likely to reach out for benefits than their male counterparts. Navigating the complex system of veteran benefits can be frustrating.
Many just give up. And program leadership says reversing a perception in military culture that asking for help is a sign of weakness can be difficult for veterans who have been trained to be self-sufficient.
Plus Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and military sexual trauma-- which 40 percent of homeless female vets have experienced-- can make it tough to hold down a job, if they can even get one.
"They're coming back from war to a collapsed economy. Jobs are hard to find, particularly in rural America. And a lot of times women want to connect home where they grew up, or where family is, or where's comfortable. And there may not be a lot of jobs out there for them,” said Murphy.
And leaders of the program say it's all about creating a structure of connections between women, who will have a better understanding of issues unique to female veterans.
"If we can get out there, share this information, and help one, we've done our job," said Wollmer.