Many veterans struggle as they return home after serving this country. Among that group are women who may have a hard time making that transition, sometimes ending up on the verge of being homeless. As part of our series “Common Threads: Veterans Still Fighting The War” FM89's Diana Aguilera reports on how a woman is determined to make a difference. Support for this series comes from Cal Humanities, as part of the War Comes Home initiative.
Anita Pascual always looks forward to Monday nights. It’s the time when she gets to sit on a couch and chat with other women.
“I made coffee if you guys still want coffee,” she says.
The group of 10 are sitting in a living room, drinking something warm for this chilly night. With all the laughing that’s going on, one would think it’s a ladies night but in reality Pascual is on the clock trying to connect these women with jobs.
“CarMax is looking for 15 sales consultants, so they’re looking to hire people like as soon as possible,” she says.
Pascual’s goal is to help these women who all have two things in common: they were all homeless and veterans. She works for Homefront, a project of the non-profit organization WestCare Foundation. The program gives women veterans in Fresno County a temporary home and a support network so they can get back on their feet.
Pascual isn’t a stranger to these women. That’s because at one point she was in the same situation: a veteran with no place to call home.
The 30-year-old started her journey in the military training as a truck driver with the National Guard. She was just 19 years old when she joined so she could get help to pay for school. But her life took an unexpected turn.
“The Friday that I found out I was pregnant the next day, which is Saturday, I had my drill and I found out we were getting activated to go to Iraq.”
Pascual didn’t make it overseas. Since she was pregnant she decided to get out of the National Guard.
But three years later, she returned. This time leaving her three children to join the Army. In 2009 she left for Afghanistan.
“Just the flight over when they tell you ok we’re going to go black out and they literally shut everything off. It was scary you don’t know what to expect if you haven’t done it already you just don’t know and I’m pretty sure if you have done it you still don’t know.”
She says there was something powerful about getting behind the wheel of a big MRAP.
"From my circle of people that I knew outside of there a lot of them hadn’t done anything like that before. I had my moments where I almost flipped the truck over but I still think it was all worth it.”
That’s exactly why she went back to serve her country. She wanted to expand her comfort zone and find some stability.
“There was just a lot going on in my life at the time that I was just dealing with so rather than staying home and sulking I can get on and do something productive.”
After serving overseas for 11 months she says she felt like she was on top of the world, like she could conquer anything that life threw her way. But a few months after she went back home to Fresno, she hit rock bottom.
“I had to get used to paying my bills on time and I couldn’t. Thus things happened and then the next thing I knew I was getting evicted and I had nowhere to go.”
She says it was tough to readjust to civilian life.
“One day I was me, a soldier, and the next day I’m mom again. Mom, and sister, and daughter and I had to do all that buckle up and it was just exhausting and overwhelming sometimes.”
Pascual went from feeling like a proud soldier to almost being homeless just a few months later.That’s when someone told her about Homefront.
“I was able to pick myself up here,” she says. “I was able to get support in different areas, get a job again and get back into school and connect with my kids.”
It’s been nearly four years since she got out of the apartments and left the program. She got married and lives with her husband and kids in a home in Fresno.
Now, the 30-year-old says working with homeless women veterans and helping them find the support they need has been her true calling.
“Since I’ve been back I wanted to work with veterans at some capacity now I’m able to. And then in this specific location inside it’s just that much closer to home for me.”
One of the ladies living there is Elle, who did not want us to use her last name. Pascual wants to help Elle get back on track just like she did a few years ago. Elle says this program has inspired her to believe that one day she will be back on her feet.
“It’s not just a room and that’s it. You have all the capabilities of what can help you to move forward,” Elle says. “It doesn’t make you feel like you’re sitting under a park bench anymore.”
She’s been living in the apartments provided by the program for about two months. And she says meeting Pascual has changed her life.
“I’m going to get my college benefits, she put me up with a good position with being able to get a job. Seven or eight years of back and forth it took seven weeks just for Anita to help me out.”
Back at Homefront, Pascual gives me a tour of the apartments near the train tracks in southwest Fresno. It’s in a rough neighborhood but driving by you can tell the pride the residents have in their homes.
“Everyone has a job and a chore to do so they maintain the lawn, the sprinkler system, all the facility.”
As we walk around the apartment complex she says she never thought she would be back in the same place where she was able to pick herself up.
But when the opportunity to work there came along earlier this year, she took it. And now she says her job means so much to her because she’s been through that experience herself.
“It’s fulfilling and I feel like I can understand. I might not know exactly but I know what it is to struggle in this capacity. They can go up from here I know if you set your mind to it I know you can.”
Today in addition to her job at Homefront, Pascual is going to school at the University of Phoenix in Fresno. She hopes to graduate with a degree in social work next December.