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Center for female veterans opens in Old City

A woman Marine goes through an obstacle course, one of the tasks of the combat endurance test at Quantico, Virginia, September 28, 2012.

OLD CITY — Citing the growing number of women in the military, officials on Tuesday opened Philadelphia's first center to provide services specifically for women veterans.

With some military officials and female veterans on hand, officials cut the ribbon at the Women Veterans Center at the Veterans Multi-Service Center on North Fourth Street in Old City before about 50 people.

Women's center coordinator Aronda Smith, an Army veteran who served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, hailed the new facility as a place of opportunity and support for women vets.

"One of the reasons we created the Women Veterans Center is because, just like when you serve in the military, [support services] are predominantly male," she said. "There are not as many services offered for women veterans."

The women's center is on the ground floor of the five-story Veterans Multi-Service Center, a nonprofit facility that has provided services to male veterans since 1980 and to women veterans since the mid-1990s.

"Just to have a private area and to have more gender-specific things that are pertinent to women veterans is important," Smith said.

Smith said the women's center offers an array of services and workshops, including health and wellness, credit counseling, networking, employment counseling, parenting after combat, yoga, and home ownership.

Sonya Searcy, 50, a Navy veteran from Yeadon, said she welcomed the new center.

"I hope that all of us female veterans are off the street and have jobs and are well-taken care of in 2014," she said.

Another veteran who also made it a point of attending the grand opening was Bernadette Ricketts, 59, who served in the Air Force.

The South Philadelphia resident said she was hopeful that the center "would help female veterans rebuild their foundations in the civilian world."

Smith noted that among women veterans, "military sexual trauma" (MST) has become a significant problem, adding that counseling would be offered to those who need it.

"Sometimes there is a lack of understanding of what MST actually means, and sometimes that means that women don't get the services they need," Smith said.

Officials said there are more than 82,000 veterans in Philadelphia and that 3 percent to 5 percent are women. There are 61,000 female veterans in Pennsylvania.

Lori Maas, women veterans program manager for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Philadelphia, said women are the fastest-growing group using veterans services. She said the average age of female veterans is 42.

The new center already has 200 women enrolled in programs, Smith said. The Veterans Multi-Service Center serves about 2,500 veterans per year.

Marsha Four, past executive director of the Veterans Multi-Service Center, urged women veterans to share their experiences with each other.

"You can give so much to each other by sharing. . . . You have the opportunity to work toward changes," Four said. "You should be proud of your service. Stay connected and stay strong."

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