Eighteen months after she enlisted in the Army, Wanda Porter fell from a 50-foot tower, shattering her feet and ending her military career. Today, after three surgeries, a year in a veterans hospital, a failed marriage, bouts of depression and 17 years of therapy, Porter is taking classes at Baltimore County Community College and planning to complete a degree in psychology.
She credits Veterans Affairs with helping her recover and was eager to attend a networking fair especially for women veterans at the Baltimore VA Medical Center on Saturday.
"Sometimes it's kind of intimidating to see so many men here," Porter, a resident of Chase, said of the center.
Too many women stay away from the VA because they see it as an institution that only serves men, said Manuela Perez, director of the Maryland Women Veterans Forum. Her organization guides female veterans through the VA system and helps them take advantage of their benefits.
The fair - the first specifically for Maryland's female veterans - helped women connect with organizations that provide job placement, counseling, health care, housing and business advice. While the forum aims to reach out to all veterans, it is especially interested in helping women recently returned from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Every woman who serves is a veteran," said Perez, a 22-year Army veteran. "But many don't realize that."
Although the 2000 U.S. Census counted nearly 35,000 female veterans in Maryland, only about 200 women are enrolled with the Baltimore VA, Perez said. Organizers estimated that about 60 women stopped by the fair.
Those who did attend could learn about housing programs for homeless veterans, gynecological care at the VA center and job training programs through the Maryland Workforce Exchange. Many women expressed interest in group therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, which is offered by the Vet Center in Pikesville.
Renee, who declined to give her last name, said that she has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since being sexually assaulted soon after joining the Army at the age of 18 in 1988. After being discharged in 1990 for a leg injury, she said she was periodically homeless, struggled with depression and had her children taken by Child Protective Services.
"I went through hell for years," she said, before finding help from the VA. She is seeing a psychiatrist and has joined a women's therapy group.
In addition, she has tapped into job training and housing assistance programs. She hopes to attend college and become a psychiatric nurse.
Jeanette Hammond, an Army veteran and a nurse at Fort Meade, came to the fair to learn about programs for herself and for her patients. The Odenton resident says that she relies on the VA for her medical care and appreciates the clean, modern hospital.
"They've really changed from 20 years ago, when VAs were like haunted houses," Hammond said.