TAMPA — Pam Smith-Beatty didn't think of herself as a veteran. She was a wife, a mother — many things before she was a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel.
"I thought a veteran was an old guy who had shot people," she said.
It's a common image, and because of it, many female veterans don't realize they're eligible for benefits, said Smith-Beatty, the women veterans program manager at James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
She was one of about a dozen women who brainstormed ways Hillsborough can help female veterans at a meeting Tuesday hosted by the county's Commission on the Status of Women.
It was spurred by some staggering statistics:
About 300 female veterans are homeless in Hillsborough County. About 20 percent of women screened at Veterans Affairs facilities report sexual trauma. Florida, with about 140,000, has the third-largest number of female vets.
And these women have unique issues. Many have young children. Some are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Veteran Corry Neal, 38, said she's less concerned about financial support and more about emotional help. Tears streaming, she shared her story at Tuesday's meeting.
She has four boys with her husband, who's active duty military. In his absence, their children, ages 11, 12, 13 and 15, deal with strong emotions, from pride to resentment.
She has tried counseling but needs someone who understands the uniqueness of military families, she said.
Children are often overlooked when it comes to military issues, the panel agreed.
They didn't offer any solutions Tuesday, but plan to continue meeting to discuss employment, housing and mental health issues.
These meetings will likely improve communication, which has been a problem, they agreed. Just this month, the University of South Florida held an event for female veterans at the Museum of Science and Industry, and Tampa Crossroads — which offers transitional housing for female veterans — wasn't told.
"We could have had a houseful of women there," said Tampa Crossroads director Sara Romeo.
To Romeo, many of the panel's suggestions were nice, but she's more concerned with the basics.
"The women I see, they literally walk in with a plastic bag, and that's all they have to their name," she said. "It's a national disgrace."
The nonprofit is raising money to open a new home for female veterans with children.
"There's nothing like that anywhere," Romeo said.
It has raised about $575,000 in federal grants and already own the land. It needs about $250,000 more, she said.
The group also broached the idea of starting a welcoming brigade for female service members who fly into Tampa International Airport.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.