NORTH TAMPA — When Pam Smith-Beatty joined the Air Force in the 1980s, women serving in the military weren't exactly commonplace.
"When I first came in, if you were a female in the military, they automatically assumed they were gay," said Smith-Beatty, a retired Air Force nurse who now coordinates the Women Veterans Program at James A. Haley VA Medical Center. "That's changed."
These days, women make up more than 15 percent of the military, not counting the country's 1.2 million female veterans.
Still, they face unique challenges, including increased rates of homelessness and struggles finding housing, child care and jobs.
Those issues are exactly what local charity Tampa Crossroads and the Department of Labor hope to address at Stand Up for Women Veterans, an event Saturday at Al Lopez Park. Smith-Beatty will be among the volunteers helping to educate people about VA benefits for female vets.
It's the first of its kind in the South, and one of just a few events across the country geared toward female veterans. Aside from basic food, housing and employment assistance, the event will feature poetry readings from a formerly homeless veteran, a keynote address from a Department of Labor official and a panel discussion.
"We're trying to learn what is helpful to our female soldiers when they come back into the community," said Sara Romeo, the CEO of Tampa Crossroads and a former state representative. "If we have limited amounts of dollars to assist them, what do they need most?"
Crossroads' veterans outreach focuses mainly on homeless female veterans. Women who served in the military are almost three times more likely to become homeless than those who haven't, according to statistics from the VA's Homeless Veterans Initiative Office.
Indeed, female veterans are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population and have a much higher risk of becoming homeless than male veterans, according to the VA.
"They've come back to an economy that is tanking, to a lack of affordable housing and a very, very uncertain job market," Romeo said. "When you come home and grandma gives you back the kids and you have to find housing and a job, that begins a very quick spiral downward."
Lt. Col. Samantha Ray, the commander of the 6th Communications Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, said leaving her three children behind during deployments is the hardest challenge she has faced.
"You are torn between doing your duty for your country and being a good parent," she said. "At any age, you can miss so much over a six- to 12-month period."
For low-income female veterans, caring for children after a tour overseas can be even more difficult, Romeo said.
"Becoming Mom again after serving overseas sets up a lot of issues for women," she said.
Crossroads has been offering veterans-specific programs for about five years, Romeo said.
"We began to see homeless females, veterans. I couldn't get it out of my mind that a woman who served our country so courageously would be living on the streets," she said. "At the time there were no programs just for the females. It was really difficult for them to get healthy and get back on their feet because they're so outnumbered."
In 2008, the charity opened Athena House, a homeless shelter for female veterans. Its 16 beds have been full since the day it opened, Romeo said.
Smith-Beatty has never been homeless, but she has faced challenges, like other female vets.
She has moved 11 times in 22 years, spent a year away from her two children on a remote tour in Korea, and held down the home front while her husband served a 6 1/2 month tour in Iraq.
Working for the VA has shown her what can happen to female veterans, and why it's important to reach out, she said.
"It sounds crazy, but very often as I stop at a stoplight and see someone (panhandling), I'll ask if they're a veteran, if they need help," she said. "I've been very lucky."
Aubrey Whelan can be reached at (813) 226-3446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.