It was the sight of a little boy peering at her from behind a pole that signaled to Staff Sgt. Stacy Keyte that readjusting to life at home was going to be tough. Keyte had just returned from a nearly two-year deployment to Iraq, and this doubtful child was her son, Caleb, then almost 3. Caleb had been shown lots of pictures of Mommy while she was away, and he had talked to her on the phone and by videoconference many times, but he was still reticent to come forward for a hug. “He was saying, I know you, but Iʼm not really sure about you,” Keyte says with a chuckle.
She can laugh about it now, thanks in part to the support of other female veterans who know firsthand what she went through. Keyte works with and for former servicewomen as one of seven staff facilitators at Grace After Fire, a Texas organization that aims to connect Americaʼs women veterans to one another. Keyte sought help from the group after returning from Iraq in 2006, and soon after joined the program as a staff member. Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, Grace After Fire operates under the mantra: knowledge, insight, self-renewal. According to its mission statement, it strives to help female vets overcome a multitude of challenges “not by putting a Band-Aid on the wounds of post-traumatic stress, military sexual trauma, depression, or substance abuse, but by giving time and space for women veterans to listen, connect and heal with one another.”
The service, which is funded through the Texas Department of Health Services and a variety of private funds, is especially valuable in the state. In 2014, Texas surpassed California as the state with the most female vets and counts 192,000 women among its growing veteran population — about 47,200 Texas women have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. In the United States, there were a total of 1.6 million female veterans in 2012, 60 percent of them under 30, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). To reach vets outside of the state’s borders, Grace After Fire also runs “Graceʼs Garden,” an online community where vets can share tips, experiences, problems and a compassionate ear.
Keyte, who lives in Fort Worth, received her orders to deploy to Tikrit, Iraq (Saddam Husseinʼs hometown), in 2005, just after Caleb’s first birthday. She celebrated her own 25th birthday in Iraq. Keyte’s husband, a Texas Army National Guardsman like Keyte, also got orders to ship out for service along the U.S.-Mexico border shortly after his wife did, and the couple was forced to place Caleb in the care of his grandmother.
In Iraq, Keyte struggled to cope. She found one “battle buddy” who had left her teenage children at home, but no one who shared her particular situation. “It was hard, especially since I was a first-time mom,” she says. She kept in touch with Caleb over the computer and telephone, but calls had to be made in a communal building with close-set booths that made privacy impossible. (When her husband did another overseas tour in 2009, soldiers were able to call home using Skype on their laptops in more private settings.)
Keyte’s deployment was difficult in itself. She worked as a media communications specialist in Iraq, behind the front lines — but that didn’t mean she was safe. In Iraq and Afghanistan there is no defined battlefield. Keyte often felt and heard the shock of incoming artillery. Though she had been fully trained in combat skills, her first brush with indirect fire was still disconcerting. “Thereʼs no safe place there,” Keyte says, adding that no matter what kind of training a soldier receives, it cannot prepare him or her for the first encounter with live fire.
After coming home, Keyte set about reconnecting with her almost 3-year-old son, but even the simplest, everyday tasks reminded her of the time she had missed. When she was asked in a restaurant if she needed a high chair or a booster seat for Caleb, she didnʼt know. Her readjustment was difficult — made harder by painful migraines for which Keyte sought treatment through the VA — but she pulled through, went back to school, earned a master’s degree in marketing, had another baby, a son now aged 4, and joined Grace After Fire to work on the groupʼs signature program Table Talk: Color Me Camo.
Table Talk focuses on setting up peer-to-peer groups, says Lil Serafine, chief operating officer of Grace After Fire, bringing together vets in supportive small groups to talk about their needs. The program also helps veterans navigate the various agencies and organizations that can help them with specific issues, be it child care or health services. Facilitators like Keyte, who are all home-based around the state, also train volunteers on how to set up their own peer-to-peer groups, an especially useful tool in such a big state as Texas with lots of small towns and rural communities.
Grace After Fire also holds a couple of retreats each year for vets and their families. In June, they will gather at a San Antonio-area resort with a full schedule of events and programs — some just for fun, like the visit to a nearby ranch, and others aimed at helping renew bonds in families that have been apart. Sessions are held for spouses and children to allow them to talk about their problems and concerns, and also to help them deal with Momʼs transition from soldier to civilian. The retreat is likely to attract 100 families or more, says Serafine, and with full funding from the Newmanʼs Own Foundation, it will be free for families.
For Keyte, now retired from the Texas Army National Guard, her job has been “an answer to a prayer,” enabling her to serve her fellow vets. “I know a lot of women who are always focusing on everyone else and never stop to deal with themselves,” she says. Grace After Fire is all about helping warriors renew themselves. “In the military we are not allowed cry or someone will say, ‘Youʼre so weak, so emotional,’” Keyte says. “Here, we learn to be our natural selves again.”