Army Reservist Jaspen Boothe was deep into training for deployment to Iraq in August 2005. In the reserves for 13 years, she had given up her home in New Orleans and placed her belongings in storage.
Then, Hurricane Katrina hit, and Boothe, a single mom of a 9-year-old son, lost everything. A month later, more bad news: She was diagnosed with adenoidal cancer, which prevented her deployment, and, though she was treated successfully, led to her honorable discharge from the military.
“Overnight, I was without a job and no place for my son and I to live,” Boothe, who moved in with her aunt and slept on the couch, tells PEOPLE.
Seeking help at a Veterans Administration office, Boothe says she was told to apply for food stamps.
“It was so degrading and it made me angry,” she recalls. “I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.” (A VA spokesperson said the VA couldn’t comment on this).
Four months later, when Boothe landed a civilian job working on benefits for the Army National Guard in Washington, D.C., she was struck by how many female veterans had similar stories. She learned that hundreds of former reservists and guardswomen who had fallen on hard times had nowhere to live once their service was over. According to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report, the number of homeless female veterans more than doubled from 2006 to 2010, to about 3,328.
“It was shocking to me,” says Boothe, now 36. “These women had served their country and had made the same sacrifices as men. They deserved to be treated with dignity in their time of need.”
Boothe was determined to help: She took a $15,000 advance on her credit card in 2010 to start Final Salute, a nonprofit that has provided temporary shelter, counseling, child care and help with finding permanent housing to nearly 300 former military women and their families.
Women can stay at one of three Final Salute homes for up to two years, and they must pitch in with cooking and cleaning and contribute toward food and utilities once they find jobs.
“I had no idea how I was going to make it until I met Jaspen,” says Anne-Marie Dixon, 36, who slept in her car with her two sons after she was discharged from the Air Force Reserves in 2012. “She took me in and she gave me hope. For that, I’m eternally grateful.”
Boothe, now married with two sons (Branden, 19, and Jammel, 4), also helped Afghanistan vet and Army Reservist Chiquita Pena. Pena, 31, and her family faced eviction after her husband, Karl, also a Reservist, lost his civilian job.
Boothe stepped in to find the family housing. And she didn’t hesitate to say “yes” when the couple asked if she’d look after their daughter while they were deployed to Qatar.
“Jaspen has the biggest heart of any woman I’ve ever met,” Pena says. “There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for female veterans.”
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