Michigan groups ramp up to help women vets

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News
Wuraola Odunsi with fellow Army soldiers in 2011.

Veterans agencies are retooling to help a growing number of women transition from the military to civilian life.

As the armed forces wind down from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ranks of former military personnel are declining overall, but the Department of Veterans Affairs projects the number of women veterans will rise by 2040 from 2 million to 2.4 million.

While a small proportion of the nation's 22 million veterans, women are expected to grow from about 9 percent to over 15 percent by 2040. The VA estimates the number of former service members will fall to about 15 million in the next 25 years.

"Women are the fastest growing group within the veteran population," said Jeff Barnes, director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.

The agency runs three-week "reverse boot camp" seminars to help returning service members transition back into civilian life, and officials are considering a women's-only "REBOOT workshop," Barnes said.

Wuraola Odunsi, 31, a former Army sergeant who saw combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, completed a re-entry workshop in January.

The program, which trained veterans in areas such as resume-building, financial management and job-hunting, helped ease her fears about being a civilian after 13 years, Odunsi said.

"You get caught up in a lot of negative thoughts," she said. "When I got out of the Army, I thought, 'Who's going to hire me? I'm a combat veteran, I don't have any skills, I can't do this and I'm not good enough.' "

Women who have left the military face many of the same hurdles as servicemen when their time in uniform ends, but some very different issues as well, veterans officials say. Those challenges can include raising children as a single parent and recovering from sexual abuse and harassment, says the VA

So far, about two dozen Michigan veterans have gone through the REBOOT program, Barnes said.

"It takes 16 weeks of basic training to turn someone into a soldier, but when you leave the service you become a civilian in 72 hours," he said. "You're not prepared to make that transition."

Laura Rios served in the U.S. Air Force for 26 years and held the rank of master sergeant. This a photo taken at her retirement party in 2009.

Odunsi said the workshop was a godsend and recommends it to other women veterans struggling to adjust to civilian life. "The program helped me so much," she said. "It was invaluable."

Women such as Odunsi face many of the same challenges as servicemen when their military careers end, but some very different ones as well, veterans advocates say.

Those challenges can include raising children as a single parent and recovering from sexual abuse and harassment, according to the federal Veterans Administration.

Odunsi, who joined the Army at age 17 after graduating from high school in Detroit, said she was torn last year when her unit, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, was deactivated.

As a single mother, she didn't want to to re-enlist and spend more time away from 9-year-old daughter Ashleigh. But she was nervous about shedding her uniform for good.

'Definitely afraid'

"I was worried about what I was going to do when I left the service," she said. "I had been in the Army most of my adult life. I was definitely afraid."

Odunsi decided to end her service, but her sense of unease continued.

"I had just got out of the military and I felt like I was at a standstill," she said. "You get out of the Army, you feel like you're out here by yourself."

Locally, agencies such as Macomb County Veterans Services are trying to change that. Laura Rios, chief veterans services officer, said an especially tough challenge for her and her co-workers is helping homeless women veterans.

"There aren't any shelters just for women veterans around and there aren't any for women veterans with children," Rios said. "There's a big need for one in Metro Detroit."

Marilyn Milne, a Navy veteran from Harrison Township, is an example of that need. Milne, 59, spent 81/2 years in the Navy as a cook, serving at stations in Illinois, Virginia and Italy.

But after getting divorced and bouncing around in several jobs, she found herself living in her car in August 2012, despite earning an associatedegree at Baker College. For a month, Milne parked her car in well-lit places at night so she could feel some sense of safety and get some sleep.

"A cop knocked on my window once at 3 in the morning," she said. "He wanted to know what I was doing there. He was shocked when I told him I was a veteran and I had nowhere else to go."

Milne eventually got help from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, which covers part of the rent for the one-bedroom apartment where she lives now.

She earns minimum wage as a store janitor and misses her days in the service.

"I would go back in if I could," Milne said.

Rios, who served in the Air Force for 26 years, used the G.I. Bill to help her earn bachelor's and master's degrees after retiring as a master sergeant in 2009.

Her career took her across the United States and overseas to Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2005. "I stayed on a base," Rios said. "I didn't gear up and go out on convoys. But the base was (fired on) more than 120 times, so it was still very real combat."

Staying strong

Odunsi came under fire in Iraq as well.

"I was sleeping and a mortar shell came through our tent," she said.

A siren woke her and some of her fellow soldiers. "Most of us were able to get to a bunker, but there were some who didn't hear it," she said. "There were a lot of injuries."

Odunsi said her service made her tough. "You overcome," she said. "You have to stay strong. You have teammates who are depending on you and you want to come home alive."

She said the REBOOT program helped change the way she thought about herself as a veteran.

Since finishing the workshop, she's been busy job-hunting and working toward a degree from an online community college.

"I met people who are going through the same thing I am," Odunsi said. "We're all trying to start our lives over."


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REBOOT workshops

The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency is holding three-week workshops designed to help veterans make the transition back to civilian life.

Two workshops, open to both men and women veterans, are scheduled for:

■April 27-May 15 at the Michigan National Guard, 3411 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Lansing.

■June 1-19 at the Kent County Human Services Building, 121 Franklin SE in Grand Rapids.

Registration is available online, and all veterans, regardless of service era or discharge status, are welcome.

For information or to register, call the agency at (800) MICH-VET or log on to www.michiganveterans.com.

Source: Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency