On Sun., Oct. 7, Panama City resident Stacey VanDyke was in Hollywood, Calif., after placing in the top 10 of the Ms. Veteran America competition. Excited about her success and the money raised for female veterans in need, she – and her family and friends with her -- flew toward home but was stopped at the airport in Nashville, Tenn. It was there that she learned they could not fly home. The family decided to rent a car and drive to Birmingham where they have family members.
After finding a hotel, the family learned from her father-in-law in Panama City that their had house no water or power.
“I knew I could not manage with a baby,” said VanDyke, who, with her husband, Zachary, has adopted two small children, in addition to their blended family of three older ones.
VanDyke teaches anesthesiology nurses at the Panama City campus of the University of Florida, parts of which are destroyed. She is concerned about her students, many of whom have no homes; and she wants to make sure the seniors will graduate on time in mid-December.
Her situation is similar to the one recently faced by the nursing department at Jacksonville State University, which is where VanDyke earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1994. Hurricane Michael has done damage to her department, similar to the damage done by the March 19th tornado at JSU.
“I know I have six or seven students who have lost everything,” VanDyke said, “but, thankfully, they are accounted for.”
VanDyke is experiencing déjà vu because, at one point in her life, she, too, was threatened with a delay in graduation because of Hurricane Katrina. At that time, she was pursuing an internship in Biloxi, Ms., while studying for her master’s degree in nursing from Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md. Thankfully, she had active-duty captain’s pay (at that time) and insurance on her home. VanDyke spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. She joined in 1996 and deployed in support of Operations Southern Watch Enduring Freedom in 2001 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2009. After Katrina, she completed her degree in Bethesda, and then went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham to earn her doctorate in nursing practice, which she completed in 2010.
Final Salute Inc.
On Sun., Oct. 7, VanDyke found herself in Hollywood competing in the Ms. Veteran America contest, thanks to an invitation that she received seven months earlier to speak at the showing of the documentary, “Served Like a Girl.” The movie’s message was about the plight of female, homeless veterans and those who were single-veteran mothers. She learned that many would not seek help because they were afraid their children might be taken away.
Also, VanDyke learned about Final Salute Inc., a group founded by another female veteran who had become homeless because of Hurricane Katrina. Final Salute is founded on the idea that, even today, there are many programs available for male veterans with families; but few programs exist for female veterans’ families who need childcare, housing, and other services.
According to www.finalsaluteinc.org, there are 4,338 female veterans who reported that they were homeless, and 23,000 who were unemployed. Seventy percent of homeless female veterans are single mothers. The estimated number of homeless female veterans is 55,000, according to VanDyke, and it is the largest growing segment of the homeless population in America.
Also, VanDyke said that many female veterans may suffer from various problems, including post-traumatic-stress disorder, spousal abuse, or sexual trauma.
These facts motivated VanDyke to get involved with the Ms. Veteran America competition, which rates women on their ability to raise money for the Final Salute Inc. programs (at least $10,000 is required), their talent, and the ability to interview well. She wanted to help the cause. She filled out an application, spent months raising money, and, later, qualified during the semi-finals to travel to Arlington, Va., where she earned a spot as one of the top 25 contestants. Then, she went to Hollywood and was thrilled to finish in the top 10. VanDyke was able to raise $12,000 by organizing a silent auction and selling commemorative pins, and by contacting entertainer, Charlie Daniels, whom she met once in Iraq. His charity for veterans, The Journey Home, contributed $5,000.
VanDyke and her family will travel back to Panama City as soon as her house is habitable. Once home, she will face three situations: continuing to champion the cause for female veterans; helping her students overcome their obstacles; and enjoying her children, family, and first grandchild, which is due soon. Few women are better qualified or motivated than she to achieve their goals.