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Voice for women veterans hits stride, gains strength, at 100

Jodie Grenier testifies in July 2019 in front of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, about the various issues surrounding the economic well-being of women veterans.

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By THERESA WALKER | The Orange County Register | Published: June 12, 2020

SANTA ANA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Never heard of the Foundation for Women Warriors?

It won’t surprise Jodie Grenier. She hears that a lot.

But as the organization’s chief executive, Grenier wants people to know that Foundation for Women Warriors, headquartered in North Hollywood and considering an expansion to Orange County, is the only nonprofit in California solely devoted to military veterans who just happen to be female.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Foundation for Women Warriors, a milestone that comes at a time when women make up 10% of military veterans in the United States. Their numbers represent the fastest growing demographic among ex-service members, and are projected to grow to 15% in the next five years.

The anniversary will be celebrated Friday night with an online screening of the film “The Hello Girls” — a documentary on the country’s first female soldiers, who served as switchboard operators in Europe during World War I, including on the battlefield. They swore an oath to the Army and helped win the war, but received no benefits for their service.

It took 60 years before Congress formally recognized the vital role of the remaining survivors and their deceased compatriots.

Changing role

Times are different now, especially since 2013, when the Defense Department stopped excluding women from direct ground combat.

The rise in female service members will mean more women veterans in search of the kinds of resources and services that are the focus of Foundation for Women Warriors. That help includes assistance in paying rent, utilities and child care; guidance on benefits and educational opportunities; job coaching and resume writing; and, crucially, physical and emotional well-being.

Grenier’s mission is to put the foundation on a trajectory to keep pace with the expanding role of women in the military.

“It was a sleepy little organization that probably could have conjured up a whole lot more support in the past 100 years,” she said. “But we are definitely making up for lost time.”

With a $500,000 annual budget, Foundation for Women Warriors serves around 1,100 women veterans and their children annually, or about 700 families, in Southern California. It partners with some 800 organizations around the country, Grenier said. It has a satellite office in Carlsbad, where she lives, and was in the midst of establishing a presence at Goodwill of Orange County’s Tierney Center for Veteran Services in Tustin when the coronavirus pandemic postponed those plans.

“We were going to partner with and have space in Tierney Center,” said Grenier, who is working from home right now. “We’re still supposed to do that, but we want to do it safely.”

In February, the group held a professional development workshop for women veterans at the Tierney Center. It was part of its series called “Connect With Community” that also has taken place at the UC Irvine campus, as well as in San Diego and New York.

Started in 1920 as the California Soldiers Widows Home Association, the women the organization served initially were widows of soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and World War I. The association housed them in five modest bungalows, built with money raised from teas and dinners, on an acre of donated land in Brentwood, near the still-existing Veterans Affairs complex.

The bungalows were sold in the 1990s, Grenier said. And the role of the organization, along with its name, morphed over the decades, as more women began to serve in the military. In 2005, the name had changed to Military Women in Need.

When Grenier became the organization’s first full-time paid director in 2016, she changed the name again, to Foundation for Women Warriors. To Grenier, Military Women In Need sounded too “victimy.”

“Though we’re serving needs, I wanted to make sure women veterans weren’t further victimized by the words we used.”

Personal experience

Grenier, 38, understands the women veterans who come to Foundation for Women Warriors. She is one of them.

Originally from a small town in Connecticut that she “desperately wanted to escape,” Grenier joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, at 17. From 2000 to 2005 she served in intelligence, deploying to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom I and II, and continued in intelligence work after her discharge as a contractor with the military. She was an intelligence advisor for the Marine Corps Battle Simulation Center at Camp Pendleton before shifting to nonprofit work.

She described her own struggles after leaving the service — stints as a waitress and bartender, no savings; left to figure out on her own how to navigate college and the job market; undiagnosed post traumatic stress — when she testified last year before a Congressional subcommitee on the economic well-being of women veterans. She had to live with her mother because she couldn’t afford rent.

Grenier’s biggest concern now is finding jobs for the women served by Foundation for Women Warriors who became unemployed because of the pandemic. Many, she said, are single parents, and they’ll face a hurdle to pay their rent once moratoriums lift. The disruption also has hurt the foundation’s fundraising plans.

“We’re taking clients as they come to us and we’re trying to work with them as best we can.”

Watch “Hello Girls”

“The Hello Girls” documentary features footage from the National Archives depicting America’s first female soldiers, along with never-before-seen photos drawn from family archives. It screens 6 to 8 p.m., Friday. To view the film, go to foundationforwomenwarriors.org/events/list/.

©2020 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com
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