CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Nearly triple the number of American women are serving in the military now than thirty years ago. As many of them return from combat overseas statistics show the United States can count on a new group of homeless veterans, battling a whole host of different issues.
"Right now I've got my futon mattress rolled up, but I would roll it out, and I've got my sleeping bag for covers," said Afghanistan veteran Selena Hilliard, explaining how she slept in the back of her Ford Explorer for several months."What I've experienced so far is as soon as someone finds out I'm homeless they automatically think, 'Ugh, trash.' I'm not, I don't do drugs and alcohol."
According to Hilliard a year of serving abroad took a toll on her.
"We've been woken up in the middle of the night saying, ' Hey! We've got incoming mortars,'" said Hilliard, describing her deployment in Afghanistan.
Months after her return to the United States, Hilliard found herself stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered by a sexual assault while deployed.
According to Hilliard her condition made it impossible to hold a job, and she slowly spiraled into homelessness.
"For instance I was working at a fast food joint, and I was constantly wondering, ' Who's going to come up behind me? Are they going to come up behind me with a knife? Are they going to try to hurt me?,'" said Hilliard, describing the anxiety that plagued her in the workplace.
Of the American women veterans surveyed by the Veterans Health Administration, one in five said they have endured military sexual trauma.
It is only part of the battle many women face when returning home from the war zone.
"There's the caregiver issues with the mom and certainly wanting to take care of everyone else except for themself,"
said Dr. Hugh Myrick, the Associate Chief of Staff at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center."It's a point we should be saying to all female veterans, ' If you're struggling please come in and let us help you before it gets any worse.'"
Homeless female veterans have streamed into the Charleston VA Medical Center. Crisis Ministries, a local homeless shelter, is witnessing the same trend.
"Unfortunately the need is growing, and so the federal government through the VA is starting to establish more funds to grow female veteran programs," said Stacey Denaux, CEO of Crisis Ministries. "We are the only program in South Carolina that houses female veterans."
As for Hilliard, she did not end up in a shelter. A chance meeting with VA volunteer and Vietnam War veteran John Lowe took her from the back of her car, into the comfort of a caring home.
"Her and my wife have fun together, they go shopping together, which costs me an arm and a leg," said Lowe of having Hilliard in his home. "It's a different world when you can hand back pride to people, and to watch the pride come back in that one was like getting a million dollars."
"I'm a fighter you don't stick me overseas and tell me I can't do something," said Hilliard. "I'm going to do it. I'm that stubborn."