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Free program teaches female veterans how to make it in civilian life

Elvia Huizar felt alone during the four years she spent in the U.S. Air Force, part of which she spent in Iraq.

She didn't find the sisterhood she had expected. The men formed close bonds with each other. However, she and other women put up walls, creating an environment of competition among themselves.

But on Friday, those walls began to fall at the end of a three-day program designed to help female veterans succeed in civilian life.

"I know I'm not alone," said the 29-year-old, who served from 2003 to 2007 when she was administratively discharged.

This week was the first time Sunergos LLC, a performance consulting and leadership development firm, offered the free program in California, which has the largest population of female veterans, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics.

The Illinois firm usually holds a program every three months in cities across the country.

Sunergos designed the "Leading with Resiliency and Grace" program specifically for female veterans after noticing female participation lacking at its other military programs, said Kari Granger, Sunergos' director of military practice and an Air Force veteran.

"Military women have different needs," Granger said, rattling off statistics about how female veterans are more likely to commit suicide, become homeless and be unemployed than their civilian counterparts.

And some of those needs, including talking about sexual assault, are best discussed in a room of 22 women, such as what happened this week at the YWCA Glendale, which hosted the program.

Amber Holden, who served in the Army National Guard from 1993 until she was medically separated in 1999, was one of the first to open up about being sexually assaulted. When she was 21, she was raped by an officer, who told her no one would believe her if she reported what happened. But anger and depression haunted her for years after the incident.

The 39-year-old healthcare administrator from the East Bay is going through a post-traumatic stress disorder treatment program for her sexual assault. She said talking with other veterans about her experience has been an important step in her recovery.

When Holden told her story this week, others - like Huizar - began opening up, too.

Huizar was sexually assaulted while stationed in Germany. A service member "violently touched" her. She pushed him away so hard that she flipped him over.

Military women are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment or assault compared with their civilian counterparts, according to statistics provided by Sunergos.

"I still have problems with the R word," Holden said. But after finding a community of female veterans, she knows change can happen, albeit slowly.

That's what the Sunergos program is all about: letting women embrace their past, but in a way that they can move forward as a more confident individual, Granger said.

For Huizar, that message hit home. The Stanton resident works as an emergency dispatcher for Disneyland security. Before the program, she never thought she could move up the company ranks. But now, she wants to apply for a management position.

"It's like we've been climbing a ladder and we're at the top, and we're not going to look back down," she said.

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