Editor’s Note: The following is Part VII of “Hope on the Homefront,” the Ithaca Voice’s 10-part series on the struggles of the area’s veterans.

Read the introductionPart I; Part II; Part IIIPart IV; and Part V. Additional features and columns running as part of the series can be found here.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — It was an abandoned Bullmastiff called Boo who saved Jenny Pacanowski’s life.

Pacanowski had a friend who ran a rescue organization for abused and abandoned dogs: Bullmastiff Rescue Inc.  One day, the friend, Andrea Kelly, said to Pacanowski’s mother, “What about we give her a dog to care for?”

Read about Jenny Pacanowski’s return from war in last week’s Part VI of Hope on the Homefront

Pacanowski had reached rock bottom. Her PTSD symptoms from her time as a combat medic in Iraq had festered and spread: she was unable to get out of bed.  A doctor at the VA prescribed anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills. But none of it worked. She’d sleep 20 hours a day and then, when awake, she would drink to numb the symptoms: the nightmares, flashbacks, anger and debilitating depression.

“Let’s give her a trial, see if the dog does something for her,” said Kelly.  No one anticipated that one of the rescued dogs would, in turn, rescue Pacanowski.  Within a week something started to shift.

Jenny Pacanowski with Boo, photograph by Edouard Beau

“I had to get out of bed because the dog had to eat,” says Pacanowski. “I had to leave the house because the dog needed a walk. The dog needed this done, and that done.”  Pacanowski’s instincts as a medic and caretaker were stronger than the hold of the mental illness. Before long, Pacanowski was being given the sickest dogs to take care of and foster. The vice-like grip of depression started to loosen.

Silent Warriors: Can Tompkins help surging number of female vets?

While Pacanowski essentially managed her recovery without any help from the community at large, today there are projects – albeit in their infancy – to make sure no returning veteran has to go through what Pacanowski did.

There are several initiatives in the Tompkins area; but they need more funding, they need more connections to local veterans, and they need the help of the community. Pacanowski is now at the forefront of one of them: she leads regular writing workshops in Ithaca and across New York state, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for veterans.  Her next event in Ithaca will be held on August 20th.

Related: Veterans writing workshop set to take place in Ithaca

Lynette Chappell-Williams, leads the Inclusion and Workforce Diversity Program at Cornell.  She was so moved by the statistics and personal stories amongst the female veteran population in Ithaca – and across the nation – that she encouraged a team from Cornell to spend more than six months putting together a conference aimed just at women veterans.

See the statistics of female veteran in Tompkins

Cornell’s  “Women Veteran Roundtable: From Service Boots to Civilian Shoes” took place last November. The findings from the event are due to be published at the end of August.

“The stories about veterans had me in tears: there are women coming back from having served, and their experiences are terribly different [than for men],” says Chappell-Williams. One woman’s story stuck with her: a formerly high ranking officer in the military had ended up living on the streets with her child.

“As more and more women come back … We don’t have sufficient support services that address the unique needs of women. We don’t have the employment options for them. We don’t have that transitional training that they need to be able to move into a new role.

“I think we’re going to have a huge challenge, so I would love to see a community-wide conversation on this. What do we have in place? What do we need to put in place?”

Cornell assembled a team of experts that included Jordanna Mallach from the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs, and retired US Navy Captain Mary McAdams.

There were 64 participants, including speakers and moderators, with nine main presenters.

Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Hope on the Homefront.”
Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Hope on the Homefront.”

Inside the push to find jobs for Tompkins veterans

“There’s this whole undercurrent of myths that exist about women who have been in the military,” says Chappell-Williams. “One of the women said, ‘I walked in [to her new job to meet her new colleagues]  and they just assumed I was a lesbian.’ I said, ‘Okay. On what basis?’ ‘Because I’d been in the military.’ Oh, no. Seriously? How do you make that connection?

“What is some of the training that needs to be done for supervisors who may have, shall I say, a ‘different’ perspective about what role women served in the military? So that instead of saying, ‘Oh, yeah; you’ll make a great administrative assistant,’ they should step back and think, ‘Let’s look at what your skills are, not taking into account your gender. I’m going to hire you based on that.’”

What does Chappell-Williams hope will come out of the Cornell roundtable?

“What I would love to see, first of all, is a follow-up: a community-wide discussion in Ithaca. That’s my goal: that we try to be proactive, think about how we start putting things in place.”

The number of female veterans in Tompkins County is expected to double over the next 25 years

Jordanna Mallach is with the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs and has served with the Army National Guard since 2002.  She was involved with the roundtable and was one of the presenters that day.

“That Cornell University was addressing this — that was a really big deal. I was blown away,” she says.

“This was the first event that was held on a college campus and that focused on the next step: ‘How do you make it in the corporate world after being in the military? How do you make that transition?’

“Cornell is part of a very  important trend moving past only talking about Military Sexual Trauma. And that is: ‘How do we create a level playing field for women —  and for women who want to transition into the civilian world?’”

New Women Veteran Wellness Center a leap forward, but access still an issue

The VA sees this coming crisis and is trying to get ahead of it.  In December, the Syracuse VA Medical Center opened its new Women Veteran Wellness Center, which serves Tompkins County. Over $1 million was spent renovating an entire floor of the building.

There, 1000 women veterans from across the 18 counties of Central New York are treated in an  all-female environment.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand helps cut the ribbon at Syracuse’s new Women Veteran Wellness Center in December.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand helps cut the ribbon at Syracuse’s new Women Veteran Wellness Center in December.

Of the need for specialised focus for women: “We have heard them,” says Mary LaRussa, who runs the Women Veterans Program at the VA and oversees the new clinic.  What’s more, demand for the center’s services is so high, there is already talk that they might outgrow their new location.

Part of LaRussa’s job is to organize and implement outreach to rural areas.  She regularly travels across the region, trying to connect with female veterans.  It is one of the main challenges she faces: making sure that women know about the services available to them.

Cassandre Pierre Joseph, is the Director for Diversity Engagement and Career/Life Programs at Cornell.  She too was heavily involved in the organization of the women’s roundtable.  She is concerned about the need for outreach too.

“I would like to see an increase in the awareness of women veteran issues for those that are not familiar with the military experience,” she says. “I would especially like to see an increase in allies for them, which means supporting veterans directly or through reputable veteran programs.”

This is a call to arms for Ithaca.

“Female veterans need to be valued and honored just like men,” says Pacanowski. “Access and community support is something we earned and were promised after our service.

“Going forward, women veterans should know the community is there for them, alongside the female veteran trailblazers who are paving the way to healing and recognition.”

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Melissa Whitworth

Melissa Whitworth is a freelance journalist, specializing in features and profile interviews. Email her at mwhitworth@ithacavoice.com or click on the icons in the top right for more.