Webster, N.Y. -- For some veterans, the return home can be a struggle. Veterans like Leah of Rochester understand that struggle. Leah was a nurse in the Army from 2001-2004. During that time, she saw intense combat, injuries and suffered sexual assault. She had trouble assimilating back into life when she came home, and struggled for years. Last year, she searched the country to find a program that would treat and house female veterans who have children. She was surprised to find it in the Rochester region, in Webster at Warrior Salute, a service of CDS Monarch. Leah is one of the first female graduates of the program.
"I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I changed so dramatically when we came back," Leah said.
Leah joined the Army shortly before 9/11. Soon, a single deployment took her to Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. She doesn't talk much about what haunts her from those days, but the impact is deep and lasting.
"The military diagnosed it as mental illness and it took years before the VA or myself even caught up to it being a PTSD diagnosis," Leah said.
She tried to press on and to work through it. "I'll get a job and then the next thing you know I've got two jobs and then two jobs and a part time job and I'm going to school full time and I've always put so much on my plate trying to distract from life," Leah said.
Life became busier when she became a mom to Ethan, who is 2-and-a-half. Then, she had another son who died from SIDS at the age of 6 months. That tragedy brought back the trauma of war. Leah needed help, but found few options that would house female veterans who had children. She was surprised to find exactly what she needed in the Rochester region.
"We didn't know how we could fund it, but we said it was the right thing to do for our community," CDS Monarch President and CEO Sankar Sewnauth said.
That was five years ago, when Sewnauth said the VA wasn't meeting veterans' needs. He looked at CDS Monarch, which had been serving people with developmental disabilities, and saw a way to help veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress. In five years, Warrior Salute has a 70 percent success rate, graduating 60 people, mostly men. Sewnauth said female veterans don't come forward as much, especially the ones who are victims of sexual assault.
"The people that they are the victims of are men in the military, so when they heard about the program we had to explain to them that you would still be in a secure place, a safe place," Sewnauth said. "Because their experience is that they were traumatized by the very people that were supposed to be their peers or their supervisors." There is a house for men in the program in Penfield. The women live at a separate local apartment complex.
"This program gave me the opportunity to have some place to step back, away from my life and take a breath and refocus myself, and it was also a place where I could have my son with me," Leah said. She was in the Warrior Salute program for six months, doing art therapy, music therapy, working out in the exercise room and attending group therapy.
"The value of being surrounded by other veterans going through the same things and with lives post military that mirrored mine, that's invaluable," Leah explained.
Leah graduated from the program in February, but comes back when she needs support. The program continues to work with veterans after their Warrior Salute graduation, helping them get back into school or finding a job. For now, Leah is enjoying taking the time to be a stay-at-home mom.
"I've always been so fixated on what the next step is and pulling things onto my plate, and this time I'm really just trying to step back and take my time and figure out what it is I want to do next, and not what I feel like I have to do next," she said.
Warrior Salute runs on roughly $600,000 a year. It relies on donations as it does not get any government money. If you would like to contribute or learn more, click the Find it Button on 13WHAM.com.
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