When Xatavia Hughes, the granddaughter of a military man, went to serve in Iraq, she was prepared to prove herself to the male soldiers.
"My grandfather was tough and strong. That is how I was brought up: 'Don't let it get to you. Show them,'" the 28-year-old mother of two said.
And she did. It was only after she returned from a war zone to Chicago in December 2010 that Hughes began to feel tested.
A month after returning, Hughes found herself in an improbable spot: living in a dorm room at the Pacific Garden Mission, the sprawling homeless shelter on the city's West Side, shielding her two sons from addicts and criminals.
"Often when I was in shelter there was a bunch of veterans," Hughes said of her six months of homelessness. "When we get out, I thought we were supposed to be taken care of. And I was like, 'Wow, this is how our life is going to be?' I never felt that I would do so much good and then have to be pushed aside."
Hughes was like so many women over the past decade who stepped up to serve as the country launched two wars. They saw it as a way to get ahead in life and forge a different future.
Women have become the fastest growing segment of the veteran population, a trend that is expected to continue. Their return has posed several new issues for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many are single moms. They have been adversely affected by the scandal of military sexual trauma that affects one in five women who serve. They report higher rates of mental health illnesses and homelessness. Many don't feel comfortable in the male-dominated VA.
And though they already served in dangerous, life-threatening positions, the recent decision to allow women to fight in combat zones means even more are likely to return with complex and severe injuries that need attention.
Local VA hospitals have improved care and increased services for women vets, even down to their design and architectural elements. A new housing complex for veterans with families is scheduled to open next summer, offering some relief. The VA launched a hotline just for female vets in the spring.
And in the latest recognition of the need for services, a long-standing community mental health organization, Thresholds, this year expanded its existing veteran services, assigning more case workers to connect with female vets struggling on Chicago's streets.
The need to reach female vets was identified in a May 2012 VA report as "acute," given the rapid growth of the population, not to mention that they are now suffering injuries similar to male soldiers.
The report cited higher rates of homelessness among women and lower access and enrollment in VA health care.
The Chicago office of Volunteers of America, a long-standing social service agency, already had recognized the new wave of younger veterans with children who were struggling with homelessness, said Nancy Hughes Moyer, president and CEO of the Illinois affiliate.
The organization began looking at the needs of women veterans in 2010 and plans to open a new housing complex for families next summer. The organization also offers gender-specific programming, something Hughes Moyer said is going to be critical as more women return with combat-related injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder and high rates of anxiety.
"We know that is going to increase," she said. "And they have dependent children."
Thresholds secured a $350,000 grant to provide a range of services, from therapy to employment assistance, for an even more specific population: female vets with mental health issues.
"They have a lot more going on in their lives," said Lydia Zopf, director of the veteran's project at Thresholds, which is running the program. "They are more vulnerable."
Thresholds offers gender-specific programming, including the option for vets to work with female staff.
Among the Thresholds clients is Hughes, who spiraled into homelessness about a month after returning home. Her $3,500 in savings went to expenses that included moving costs, winter clothes for her boys and "rent" payments to family members who offered her temporary and cramped spaces.
Meanwhile, her anxiety and stress was mounting. Fireworks on the Fourth of July sent her diving for cover. She mourned numerous losses in her unit.
"I was so happy to see my kids, my family," she said. "But it was bittersweet because a lot of people didn't get a chance to see their kids. ... I felt guilty. I feel guilty."
Hughes was able to secure a federal veteran housing voucher with the help of a caseworker at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago that let her get out of the shelters and into a Chicago home after about six months.
On a recent rainy afternoon, Hughes was feeling upbeat as she sat on her couch with Rebekah Pulju, a Thresholds social worker. On this visit, Pulju was checking in with Hughes on her current dream: a safer neighborhood for her children. She finds herself worried about the dangerous streets of Englewood and raising her children there. Pulju and others at Thresholds are trying to help find a better location.
"As long as it's a nice neighborhood. If I find a nice neighborhood (for) my kids -- that they can be able to play," Hughes said. "I don't even have to have a stove or a refrigerator. We can rent one. We can buy one cheap. Just as long as I have a big backyard."
Barriers to service
For some returning female veterans, the challenges are especially daunting.
Back inside the Thresholds office on the North Side, Pulju meets with a 29-year-old Chicago woman who served in the Air Force and is currently covered 100 percent by the VA for PTSD. She can't tell a reporter what happened, only that she knows the military changed her.
"It's like I was alone," she said. "I had my family. It felt like I didn't know them. They didn't know me anymore."
Her goals, which she ticks off slowly to Pulju, seem simple yet tragically complicated at the same time.
"Being involved in more things. Getting out there meeting more people," she said before hesitating for a long pause. "Stop being so isolated."
In its 2012 report, the VA cited concerns that women were not accessing health care -- something vets and experts here also have observed.
Jenny Garretson, the program manager for women veterans at Jesse Brown, said female vets can feel lost. "I can't tell you how many times I have met a woman vet and she has told me, 'When I got out of the military I didn't know anything about the services that were available to me as a veteran or a female veteran,'" Garretson said.
Experts say a female vet who has experienced military sexual trauma would certainly find the busy, male-dominated hallways of a VA facility difficult, if not impossible, to navigate. But even without that type of traumatic experience, others simply don't feel comfortable.
Inside a cheery Englewood library, Thresholds caseworker Shenetta Wilson, herself a vet, meets with client Francessca Phillips, 32, an Air Force vet and mother of two who has been homeless off and on over the past five years and suffered from depression after her service.
Phillips, who returned in 2004, waited five years before going to the VA. She acknowledges she felt some bitterness about her service -- she didn't get along with her bosses. But she also said it never really occurred to her to seek services at the VA. And then once she did, there were leering men who called out remarks like, "Hey girl, hey hot thing."
Wilson, who served in Kuwait in the early 2000s, nodded.
"Ladies have been mistreated in different ways, anything as serious as (military sexual trauma) to just the sexism, the rampant sexism," Wilson said. "It's a part of the culture. That is not going to change overnight, and most of us accepted that. But when you get out ... I have heard a lot of ladies say, 'I am not a soldier anymore.' They close that door. They don't feel like a vet."
That women have not served in official combat roles -- though they are often impacted along with male soldiers -- might also explain why they and others are less likely to see themselves as veterans.
"I was never deployed. I never saw any of the Iraqi Freedom action, but it created issues," said Air Force vet Tessa Clark, 28, who served at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2003 when so many war dead were returned there. "It was hard for me to be in a lot of the veteran places. They are not friendly when you haven't seen any action."
Don't Call Me Mister
Today there are numerous public education campaigns to remind those inside the VA hospitals that women serve too: Pink camouflage bags were passed out at Jesse Brown during breast cancer awareness month. A "Please Don't Call Me Mister" poster campaign is a gentle reminder to staff not to assume that every surname on a doctor's patient list belongs to a man.
Rochelle Crump, who served during the Vietnam era in the Women's Army Corps and who has been an advocate for decades, is pleased to see these efforts by private agencies and the VA.
But Crump still worries.
Crump said she will continue to advocate through her National Women Veterans United organization, which holds information-sharing events for female vets and also recently formed what she think is the only all-female color guard in the state.
"We hold events so that women can feel proud of their service, so they know they are a veteran," Crump said. "We write ourselves out of history when we don't."