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Group gives fellow female veterans a fighting chance

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With the world a colder, crazier place these days, it’s nice to remember that good still happens.

Sometimes, some of us not only listen to our better angels but become them. And in those moments, the world, at least a corner of it, feels a little warmer.

And so it was for Melissa Atkinson, an Air Force veteran down on her luck and down to her last can of tuna when a host of angels showed up.

Like many other veterans, Atkinson came back from her tours of duty from 1997 to 2005 with battle scars, some inflicted by those on her side of the war.

She doesn’t, she can’t, talk about the specifics of those events that led to the depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder she struggles with, she said, but she is in counseling and receives a modest disability check.

Returning to civilian life has been a series of disconnects. Atkinson, 37, has little family support. A fiancé came and went. So have apartments and jobs, mostly contract work as an information technology technician. These days, she works as a convenience store clerk.

“I would call the apartment security guys all the time, the managers, about the noise,” she said. “They weren’t doing anything. I gave notice, but they still charged me. I couldn’t pay that $1,000. Anytime I applied to move somewhere, that $1,000 would come up on my credit report.”

Life on a couch was taking its toll, she said.

“I don’t know about you, but when you work with someone and live with someone, it gets hard,” she said. “It’s hard for me, anyway.”

This month, her luck started to change. A regular customer hearing about her strained and transient living situation offered to put in a good word for her at his Northeast Heights apartment complex.

“I told him that no one would rent to me with my credit, but they decided to give me a chance,” she said. “I just about cried.”

She moved in with little more than a pillow, a bowl and a few cans of tuna.

“I slept on the floor,” she said. “But it was my floor.”

Melissa Atkinson, an Air Force veteran, makes her bed in her new apartment. Volunteers with Women Veterans of New Mexico furnished the apartment for her. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Melissa Atkinson, an Air Force veteran, makes her bed in her new apartment. Volunteers with Women Veterans of New Mexico furnished the apartment for her. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

On Nov. 10, the day before Veterans Day, she told her counselor about her big move.

“She didn’t like me sleeping on the ground,” Atkinson said. “So she started making calls.”

How great it would be, the counselor told her, to make a miracle happen by furnishing the apartment by Veterans Day.

Enter the Women Veterans of New Mexico, a nonprofit that provides outreach and support from women vets to women vets, particularly those who are homeless or facing homelessness.

Until this month, Atkinson had been paying her store manager $300 to sleep on her couch, unable as she was to find an apartment willing to rent to her because she was fined for breaking a lease at another apartment over the noise from a neighbor that had become intolerable.

“That was pretty daunting, trying to get so much accomplished in a day,” said Pat Gaston, president of the Women Veterans. “This was truly a community coming together.”

Last year, the organization placed eight homeless female vets into homes and provided furniture and household items and assisted nearly 20 homeless or near-homeless vets.

Atkinson became the latest.

“We immediately went directly to the veteran to find out what she needed,” said Judy Quintana, vice president of the organization. “She pretty much needed everything.

Quintana made a mental checklist: Couch, bed, linens, coffee tables, kitchenware, microwave, food, for starters.

“She didn’t ask for anything,” Quintana said. “Sometimes all a person knows is that they need help but they don’t know what help they need.”

Quintana said her organization worked with others, including the Veterans Integration Center, churches, the state Department of Veterans’ Services, and YWCA to help Atkinson.

By Veterans Day evening, Atkinson’s apartment was furnished and food was in the refrigerator. The next day, a new full-size bed arrived.

“They even brought pictures for me to hang,” Atkinson said. “I don’t have money for a hammer and nails, but that will come.”

The Women Vets took care of that for her Thursday.

Quintana said it’s important that Atkinson and other vets like her know they no longer need to fight their battles of stability and disability alone.

“We kind of work as an umbrella,” Quintana said. “We want to make sure our vets know we are all there for her.”

(The Women Veterans of New Mexico and the others exemplify what is meant by Angels Among Us, an annual request from me to you to nominate people doing good work in the community. See the box marked “Calling All Angels” for details.)

Atkinson is home now, thanks to a series of kind acts and a bunch of better angels.

“I want to thank the apartment management for giving me a chance. I really thank the veterans, because I have never had such help before,” she said. “It feels good.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.