Cindy Larson, photograph by Sarah Whiting
For years, Cindy Larson didn’t think of herself as a veteran. She had served in Navy hospitals during Vietnam and retired from the military in 1994 after 20 years. And yet, it wasn’t until 2_ years ago, when she started working at the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV), that she truly realized she was a veteran, too.
Now Larson is working with other women veterans as MACV’s metro housing manager and supervisor of the state’s first women-only Structured Independent Living (SIL) house. The two-bedroom home, opened in December 2012, provides a safe, structured place for homeless women veterans to live while regaining stability in their lives. The women work to overcome barriers such as addiction that have affected their employment and housing and they practice key life skills.
Larson also helps veterans – men and women – obtain housing, make a rent or mortgage payment, and navigate the legal system. Often, they are homeless or on the verge of being homeless. Many of the women have children and have been making do as best they can.
“Veterans don’t ask for help. For someone to make the call and come in, it’s a big step in and of itself,” she said. “I get some amount of respect and trust because I’m another veteran. … They know you know where they’re coming from.”
According to the MACV, women now make up about 15 percent of our military. With the recent drawdown of troops, many women are coming home – and needing services. In 2012, 1,379 veterans received assistance from MACV; 8 percent of them were women, and this percentage has been rising steadily.
Women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan recognize they are veterans and are taking advantage of benefits, Larson noted. “A lot of women didn’t see themselves [as veterans],” she said. “There’s more awareness now,” she said.
Like their male counterparts, women veterans may suffer from mental illness and addictions. But some also may be struggling with military sexual trauma. Women who had negative experiences while in the military may be reluctant to ask for help from military institutions, Larson noted. She encourages them to reach out. “There are safe places to get services,” she said.
And that sense of safety is important with the women’s SIL house, said Kathleen Vitalis, president/CEO of MACV. There is structure and accountability, she said, and Larson’s guidance.
“It’s a safe place to land while they work on their many complicated issues that they have, as they figure out what their next step is going to be,” Vitalis said.
Vitalis said Larson really enhances the SIL program. She is passionate about helping veterans, and “she’s also very compassionate. She’s very empathetic, she understands,” Vitalis said. “It’s her passion and compassion. That’s for everybody that she assists.”
In her Changemaker nomination, a client noted that Larson “is the person who has her sleeves rolled up and is ‘in the trenches’ with vets helping them make better lives for themselves.”
Larson said most calls that MACV takes are from people experiencing crisis. Yet, she stays positive. “We have the opportunity to really impact what happens,” she said. “To hear the relief in people’s voices … that’s pretty cool.”
BE A CHANGEMAKER:
Cindy Larson predicts that many returning veterans won’t show signs of trouble for two or three years after their return home. Here are her recommendations to get involved:
• Be informed: Know the issues and ask questions.
• Be understanding: Military life is different from civilian life.
• Donate: Clothing and hygiene products for MACV’s StandDown events.