Editor’s note: More women are serving in the U.S. military. Currently, there are some 1.9 million female veterans, with 50,000 additional servicewomen projected to join them during the next five years. Of the 230,000 women who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since 2001, over 750 have been wounded in action, 137 mortally. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, almost 20 percent of these recent women vets have been diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Even more — 27 percent — female veterans from Vietnam have suffered from the debilitating condition, which can lead to substance abuse, homelessness and even suicide. At age 23, Renee Banton joined the Air Force to get away from her verbally abusive parents in 1978. The young woman from Carson, in fact, wound up being sent to a huge base in New Hampshire, where there were about 400 women and 3,000 men stationed. But she soon discovered that she had jumped from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. With only a dozen or so unmarried women on base, any new single women instantly attracted all kinds of attention. “The dynamics were ridiculous,” she recently recalled, shaking her head. “When you first got to the base, it was like they put a bulletin out that ‘We have a new single woman here.’ And my door never stopped with men. It was incredible.”The harassment escalated to attempted rape. When she reported it to her superior, he simply observed, “Well, because it wasn’t an entire event, you’re fine. We will never address it again.”After a month, on her first leave back home, Banton married her best friend just to stop all the unwanted male attention on base. During her four-year tour, she drank and used marijuana partly to allay her anxiety of ongoing sexual abuse.When she and her husband left the service, they started drinking and smoking more weed and trying other drugs. Her choice became crack cocaine. “I would say by 1990 I had clearly crossed what we call the ‘invisible line,’ meaning nothing else mattered,” she explains. “All the money I had or came across was used for drugs. I was missing work and borrowing money from my parents to pay rent and buy groceries.”The couple split; her husband took their two boys to Michigan while she stayed with friends until winding up on L.A.’s infamous skid row. Daily existence was hard and hazardous, hopping in and out of cars to get high and doing what she describes as “not pleasurable things” to obtain money for over 10 years. Sometimes she would wind up having a gun to her head. Banton began to entertain serious thoughts of suicide, but her religious beliefs told her that wasn’t good. “So I made this big promise to my mom on Mother’s Day that I would come to a program,” she says. “I didn’t have any idea that they worked. I’ve had plenty of experiences with people who have come from programs and yet they’re sitting next to me getting loaded.”Still, she kept her pledge. The Veterans Administration gave her a list of local addiction programs, and she picked one in L.A. called New Directions because it seemed to have more structure. Coming from the military, structure was something she had been familiar with. So, even with lots of doubts, she decided to try it for a year, hoping to study and learn about “what was going on” in her troubled life.“I came here May 14, 2003, and the turning point for me was when I found out that my addiction was actually considered a disease,” the 56-year-old woman points out. “I was able to put something in a box and many things were brought to my attention, including PTSD. It started in the Air Force, particularly when I was almost raped. That was very traumatizing for me. That was the beginning, but I didn’t look at it as such. You know, it had to be pointed out.“And then living on the street creates stress for you, too,” she adds. “You’re up all night long walking the streets of Los Angeles, and you’re running into shady characters, even though you’re one yourself. You’re doing things that you just normally wouldn’t do. These are traumatizing things. So, yeah, I have PTSD. Does it rule me? Not at this point.”‘Trauma-informed’ providerToday, Renee Banton supervises the Women’s Program at New Directions, after working as a receptionist and in accounting at the nonprofit agency, founded in 1992 by two formerly homeless Vietnam veterans. Located on the grounds of the VA’s sprawling complex off Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles and at two nearby residences, it’s become a multifaceted mental health treatment program providing veterans with food, shelter, support and, most of all, rehabilitation. As a “trauma-informed” service provider, New Directions offers treatment to vets suffering from combat injury, survivor’s guilt, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, PTSD and other trauma-inducing experiences.The Women’s Program, which is the nation’s first program designed specifically for female veterans, is divided into three phases of treatment. An orientation period (35-45 days) gets women acclimated to the long-term live-in program. Then the first stage kicks in at Mitchell House, which offers more intense individual and group therapy, along with drug treatment, medical and legal help. Female vets start actively working the 12-step program, getting clean and sober. They also attend parenting and anger management workshops, plus computer and other classes. When they are ready to start job searching or going to school, women usually transition to Barrington House. Post-program issues of housing, reuniting with children and family, as well as money management are dealt with. Together, the two houses offer female veterans a safe haven to turn their lives around and a concrete pathway to reintegrating back into the community.“We’re starting to see more women vets,” reports Rachel Feldstein, associate director of New Directions. “But women tend to be really hard to serve. They’re out there taking care of other people and they’re not taking care of themselves. They don’t come to ask for help because they’re used to being caretakers.“Or a lot of times female soldiers don’t know they’re even vets or don’t think of themselves as vets,” she points out. “Because the word ‘veteran’ often means male in their minds. They know that they served in the military, but they don’t necessarily know they’re entitled to everything men were entitled to. They’re not entitled to combat pay, and it doesn’t matter if they’re standing side by side by a man who is in combat. That shocks me.”But Feldstein says men and women veterans do share the same Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and coping addictions. The only difference is that, for female vets, the precipitating factor leading to depression, anxiety and addiction is often sexual abuse and rape. “For a lot of women in the military, the thing that they get to experience that most men don’t is military sexual trauma,” she stresses. “And you generally cannot find a woman who’s served in combat areas who hasn’t had some sort of a traumatic sexual experience. It might not necessarily be rape. It might be just harassment. But I don’t know a female veteran who has not told me that they had some sexual issues.”Moreover, women vets suffering from PTSD, like their male counterparts, often self-medicate, which can turn quickly into hardcore addictions. Treatment is basically the same — individual and group therapy, substance abuse treatment and case management. One thing in particular about homeless women vets has really impressed Feldstein, who has worked with the homeless for more than two decades. “It’s their resilience and the power of womanhood,” she says, adding with a half-smile, “I know that’s, like, very ’70s. But these women who we work with, who have gone through these experiences, are amazingly strong, powerful women. And I am just every day awed by their ability to heal and willingness to change and get out of really tough, horrible situations and make something good about themselves.”Coming homeResilient certainly describes Sunny Patrick. The 47-year-old woman joined the Marines right out of high school and liked everything about it. “I love the Marine Corps,” she says with a knowing smile. “I loved the structure. I lived the corps. I’m a proud woman. I’m proud to be a Marine. I will always be a Marine. It’s just something that sticks with us.”But after serving for five years, she was drummed out of the service because of her sexual preference, even though she tried to keep it to herself. And it devastated Patrick, who worked in supply and logistics at bases around the U.S and world. One of her most hazardous pit stops was in Somalia during the conflict between drug lords. Civilians back home watched the nondescript police action on TV, while she witnessed people being blown apart up close. “It was difficult; it was difficult,” Patrick repeats. “Marines are known for hazing and stuff, so there was a lot of torment. And when I had to leave, there was just a lot of trauma. I love my country, and I absolutely planned on making it a career. You know, I couldn’t face my family. Just the shame. I mean, there was nothing more shameful to me. “Then there were some events, like in Somalia, that were really hard for me, too. And when you come back from overseas, it’s hard to explain things to people. People don’t even know where you’ve been. And it’s like the world is spinning and you want to tell them about bodies exploding, and you can’t. “Alcohol was my gateway into the darkness, I guess you could say,” she confides. “I went from pills to heroin, and everything just got worse and worse and worse. This led to disconnecting from my family, associating with raunchy people and ultimately losing my job and everything — my car and my apartment, and hanging out on the street.”Moving became a temporary solution — from mustering out with an honorable discharge at Camp Pendleton to Seattle, Texas, Arizona and Denver. She would “get myself together” in a methadone program or by finding a new job, but it would never last. Finally, her partner pointed out that her problems were more than just alcohol and drugs because she would always revert back to “the corps, the corps.” And when she Googled “military women,” “addiction” and “depression,” what popped up was PTSD. The VA dug up her records and said she qualified for a special program geared for female veterans run by New Directions in L.A. After her mom flew her out here, she entered the Women’s Program on September 14, 2010.“It’s been amazing,” Patrick says of her experience that started with detox and is ending with a whole new outlook on life. “Like, I used to just see black and white, and now I see color. It’s just totally opened my eyes to see a world out there. I have hope now. I don’t want to die every time I wake up.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0916/vets/{/gallery}