By Mimi Chakarova, Center for Investigative Reporting
Since 1990, the number of women veterans in the United States has doubled to 1.8 million. But a lot of female veterans, especially those who are younger, don’t consider themselves veterans at all — they incorrectly assume that a “vet” must have served in combat. Thus, many of their stories remain hidden from the public eye.
Robert Rosenthal, who runs the Center for Investigative Reporting, spoke with me last summer about doing a documentary on the increasing number of women veterans who end up on the street. I was interested in this issue because of my previous work as a filmmaker and photojournalist documenting violence against women, and my work filming in Baghdad’s Red Zone in 2009. I decided to focus on the Greater Los Angeles area because the region has one of the highest numbers of homeless veterans in the country – over 8,500 – with many living in hellish conditions on LA’s notorious Skid Row.
I wound up doing profiles of eight women vets, some who had returned from Iraq and had served in combat units, and others who were stationed in Germany during the Cold War. One recurring theme that emerged was the majority had experience what the armed services calls “Military sexual trauma” while on duty. Most had been raped by their immediate supervisors and had remained silent for years.
How I met Renee
Here is how I met Renee Banton, the ‘star’ of the film. While going through reports on homeless vets in California, I read about a place called “New Directions” in West LA, which was the first in the country to offer a specific program for women veterans facing addiction and homelessness. Renee was listed as the main contact person, so I gave her a call. I left several messages, but no luck. So I decided to do what I always taught my journalism students at Berkeley to try if someone doesn’t return your call: just show up. I drove to LA, but was able to reach Renee on the phone on the way there. She said she was really swamped but could spare 15 minutes in the morning. I met her at a residential home for women veterans, and because of the honesty with which she told her story, I knew immediately that she would be the thread in the film.
In her early 20s, Renee was an Air Force accountant who was sexually assaulted on base by a colleague. The following day, she went to her supervisor to report the assault.
“Didn’t you say you fought him off?” asked her supervisor.
“So, what’s the problem then?”
A month later, Renee was assaulted again by the same person.
After completing her service, Renee returned to Los Angeles and gradually started to unravel. She drank, got high. More and more she wanted to disappear. And one day, after collecting her last check from her job, she decided to get off the bus while passing through Skid Row. She cashed her check, purchased crack, and for the next 12 years was an addict forced to find ways to survive on the streets. She sold her body, begged, and lived with drug dealers who used her as much as she used them. She built cardboard shelters to stay warm at night. She learned to always stash her drugs or smoke them real fast because police horses were trained to sniff them out. She learned to always pay the dealers on time. And she learned that sometimes, people get thrown out of buildings.
Renee told me her story without pausing. There was no hesitation, no question she wouldn’t answer honestly. So I asked her if she would allow me to film her for one month.
“Will it help other people?” she asked.
“Then when do we get started?”
I was naive. I thought I could go under a bridge or to a beach or park and meet a whole group of women vets, who stuck together through the hard times. I thought I could stay with them and document their stories. That wasn’t the case. They were invisible. Homeless women stay hidden, travel alone or with their children, and many won’t tell you they’ve served in the military because they don’t identify as vets or because they are unable to connect with the past. Many suffer from PTSD and hard addiction.
Filming the invisible
Renee told me it would be difficult to find them — and even harder to get them to tell their story on camera. But it was important for me to show the women’s faces because it chips away at the maddening stigma that perpetuates sexual abuse in the military. The VA and the Pentagon estimate that one out of five women vets have experienced military sexual trauma. But service providers on the ground estimate the number is even higher. I knew it would take time to gain their trust and that I had to be patient. What helped was that I was doing this alone, and that I had prior experience interviewing women who had been sexually abused, and that I understood the shame many feel. Over several weeks, I found two women vets on Skid Row, and another two in Long Beach. And little by little, with the help of Renee and other outreach workers who advised me on locations and the right questions to ask, I was able to get a sense of how women veterans become homeless, why they stay invisible and the complexity of the trauma many of them endure in silence.
Along with my editor, Stephanie Mechura, my biggest challenge in producing “Her War” was to create a narrative structure that didn’t oversimplify the issue. Whenever addiction and homelessness are discussed in this country, the general public tends to stop listening. On top of that, the topic of women in the military has always been a divisive and heated one. Many have preconceived notions of what type of women join the armed forces and why. We had to address the main questions the viewer might pose through the narration and connect the dots of what happens to women veterans while in service and especially after they return home. And Renee Banton became that very central and crucial thread throughout the film. I can proudly say now that she is no longer an unrecognized hero.
Director Jon Bernson’s play, “A Guide to the Aftermath,” is a theatrical interpretation of Mimi Chakarova’s reporting on homeless female veterans on Skid Row.
To see the full version of “Her War,” please visit The I Files – CIR’s Investigative YouTube Channel.
For the “Life After War: A KQED and CIR special series, please visit here.