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Identity & Community

Pittsburgh Symposium Focuses on Returning Female Veterans

Chris Cieslak, a lieutenant colonel with the Army Reserves, returned from Kabul, Afghanistan in 2012 after a year’s duty there.

Cieslak went through what she described as a "minor depression," and only now does she feel she’s made the transition from military to civilian life. She considers herself lucky — she had a good support system in place. Not all women veterans can say the same.

“I had a lot of things that were going for me that were going to help me through a bad situation,” Cieslak said. “There are a lot of people who have weaknesses in that safety net. If they don’t have a spouse looking out for them, or a community there to hold them up, or a good job to pay the bills, they could have some cracks in their safety net and they could just fall right through.”

And many women do fall through the cracks, according to Angela Reynolds with the United Way. The organization is one partner examining the issues facing women veterans.

“Some of the issues that we’ve identified are homelessness," Reynolds said. "Female veterans are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population among veterans. There are also some issues around transitional housing and how long it takes for a female veteran to be able to access the benefits that would be able to put them into a permanent housing situation.”

When added to other issues faced by women veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma, the issues can be exacerbated, according to Reynolds. Plus, there are issues that service providers aren’t even aware of yet.

“We wanted to be able to take time out and find out what those issues are, but not just talk about it, but also be active,” she said.

United Way, the Veterans Leadership Program and the Eden Hall Foundation assembled the Joining Forces symposium.

“We have the fourth highest concentration of veterans in the country here in Pennsylvania,” said Michelle Margittai, with the Veterans Leadership Program. “We have eighth largest population of women veterans. In Allegheny County there are 12,000 veterans living below the poverty line, so it’s important that we, as a community, take responsibility for these wonderful men and women who serve, and particularly women veterans.”