Keli Chevalier wasn’t ready to leave the Army, but one day in Baghdad in 2010 changed everything. Chevalier and her fellow soldiers were driving through the city when a van full of explosives detonated ahead of their vehicle, sending them flying. All survived, but Chevalier was severely injured.
After two decades of service, it was time for Chevalier to join her family in Houston. Her husband, who’d stayed home to raise the couple’s young son while she was deployed, suddenly had to find work before their money ran out. The family found itself in danger of becoming homeless.
“I was not sure what was going to happen to us,” says Chevalier, who now has a titanium rod through her spine. “I started looking for organizations that claimed to help veterans, and every single one—I called 10, maybe 12—I only got voicemail after voicemail after voicemail.”
Chevalier quickly learned just how ill-equipped support services are when it comes to helping female veterans, who experience service, deployment, and trauma differently from their male counterparts, and have different needs after leaving the service.
"People think that because you're a vet and you're a woman, that your husband's always there to kind of pick up the slack, like everything is fine," she says. "Not always the case. In my case, my husband was a stay-at-home-dad. So he's got to look for work, and I can't even really take care of my kid because I can't even walk."
When she got in touch with local veteran-assistance organizations, “some of them were like, ‘We can send you to a job fair,’ and I was like, ‘I can’t even walk,’” recalls Chevalier. “I don’t need a job fair. I need real, serious help here.”
In a way, it was her injury that saved them in the end—VA money “started coming in before the money we had ran out,” Chevalier says, and she eventually got Social Security to bridge the financial gap.
The injury also helped Chevalier find her purpose. In 2012 she founded Trauma to Triumph—now called WAVE, or Women of the Armed Forces and Veterans Empowerment Campaign—to help other female veterans, of whom there are an estimated 2 million in the U.S., and 168,000 in Texas. The Houston-based, donation-powered nonprofit advocates for their needs and connects them with resources to rebuild their lives after military service.
“They’ve served their country well, they’ve sacrificed, and they’ve left their families to do what they had to do for our country,” Chevalier says. “They should not come home and have to worry about where they’re going to lay their heads.”
What WAVE does to help can be as simple as providing a quality mattress for a disabled veteran or as complex as finding child care for a mom during job training, which the group offers through a partnership with Goodwill Houston.
One 25-year-old woman came to WAVE battling mental illness, military sexual trauma, homelessness, and unemployment, and had lost custody of her child. She’s still working to get her daughter back, but the organization helped her find a job and a car. “These are baby steps,” says Olivia Bush, WAVE’s director of finance, who joined the all-female, all-volunteer staff on a full-time basis last year.
Bush is driven by her own personal connection to the issue. An Army brat, she pursued a career in finance, but her two sisters followed in their father’s footsteps and enlisted. After getting out, each became homeless within six months. Bush, meanwhile, was a successful stockbroker.
“The three of us, we’re like peas in a pod,” she says. “The only difference between me and them is that I didn’t enlist.”
Her siblings are stable now—it’s been 10 years since they left the service—but never far from Bush’s mind. “On some level, it seems like every client that I meet, something about them reminds me,” she says.
Bush and Chevalier say their ultimate goal is to start a “women’s veterans’ village” that not only facilitates emergency shelter but helps women purchase their own homes. “Houston has the veteran population to support it,” says Bush, “and I know the Houston community is philanthropic enough to make it happen.”
In the meantime, WAVE will keep pushing for more public awareness, partnerships with local businesses, and simple changes like feminine toiletry kits at the VA Hospital in Houston. The group delivers supplies to the VA monthly, and hopes to collect even more through its first Corsets for Vets “bra-a-thon,” which will run throughout this month.
Another way anyone can make a difference? Thank a female veteran for her service. “They feel very invisible oftentimes,” Bush says. “People need to know that these women are on the front lines right alongside the guys. They’re fighting, and they’re sacrificing just as much as the men are. They are not to be pitied, but they do deserve support and recognition and gratitude. They’re not going to ask for it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it.”
Throughout January, WAVE is collecting bras, underwear, nightgowns, robes, and feminine toiletry items for care packages to distribute to women veterans admitted to the VA Hospital. Visit thewavecamp.com for drop-off locations.
Veterans, By the Numbers
U.S. veterans who were homeless on a single night in January 2017
Percentage of them who were women
Percentage increase of female homeless veterans from 2016 to2017, compared to a 1 percent rise in men
Percentage of female veterans who report experiencing military sexual trauma
Percentage of male veterans who report experiencing military sexual trauma
Women veterans assisted by WAVE in 2018
Percent of WAVE funds that directly benefit women veterans
Women WAVE visited at the VA Hospital in 2018