Grace After Fire: Veterans Group Helps Women Vets Help Themselves


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Facing homelessness and battling PTSD, trauma, and disability, US Navy veteran Olivia Zavala Carridine was struggling. 

She found a lifeline in Grace After Fire. 

Olivia, a mother of four in San Antonio, got pivotal support from the women veteran’s organization – which aims to provide women the resources and tools to succeed in her community, work, and home after leaving the military. 

“[Grace After Fire] has empowered me to believe that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my story,” she said. “I have a sisterhood with women that I didn’t have many times with my sisters serving alongside me.” 

Olivia got back on her feet with the help of Grace After Fire – and she’s not the only one. 

Grace After Fire Origins 

Some wars take place on a battlefield, standing toe to toe with your fellow servicemen and women. 

Others are fought internally and often waged alone. 

Whether those scars are emotional and left behind by traumatic events or physical, sustained from years of combat; all wounds need time to heal. 

When it comes time to part with the military, these wounds come to the surface and veterans can slip through the cracks, especially women veterans, who often lack access to resources that help them with trauma, depression, housing, finances, and more. 

Helping women veterans is what Grace After Fire is all about. 

The organization lifts women veterans from the trenches and helps them help themselves. 

It all started in 2002, when Stephanie Moles launched the organization, then known as, The Women’s Heart, in Southern California. 

The Women’s Heart was an addiction recovery program aimed at helping women veterans gain access to the healthcare services they desperately needed. 

The leadership torch was later passed to Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, followed by Mea Williams, a veteran of the US Navy.

Amelia Peacock, Grace After Fire interim program director. Courtesy of Grace After Fire

Under Olson’s leadership, the organization moved its base of operations to Texas and was renamed to Grace After Fire in 2008. 

Today the organization helps support hundreds of women veterans, said Amelia Peacock, Grace After Fire interim program director and US Marine Corps veteran. 

“After any type of experience, or anything that can at times really bring you down and weigh very heavily on you … Anytime life is happening, and life is life-ing in a heavy manner, that can also be that fire that you’re under,” Peacock said.  

“After fire, it’s that grace that we’re providing … That you’re not alone, sis. You have that camaraderie; you have that sisterhood in the military. As veterans, we still maintain that because that’s a very powerful thing.” 

Helping Women Veterans Help Themselves 

When Grace After Fire began, its primary purpose was to help women veteran’s facing challenges after service.  

Over time, that mission moved toward women veteran’s empowerment and giving women the resources and tools needed to succeed in life after the military. 

They’ve launched several services aimed at helping women veterans help themselves. 

The organization offers community resource navigation, which helps women find resources that meet their individual needs within their local communities. 

They also have wellness programs, which features yoga, fitness groups, and healthy living activities. They even help veterans give back, like joining the All of Us Research Program, a national effort that aims to build the largest and most diverse database of health information of its kind that researchers can use to study health and illness.

Amelia Peacock and Tana Plescher (pictured center left and right). Courtesy of Grace After Fire

One of Grace After Fire’s most helpful resources is peer-to-peer support groups. 

These are groups of seasoned women veterans who help other women veterans who are transitioning out of service, said Tana Plescher, Grace After Fire president and CEO, and Navy veteran. 

“Women veterans or active-duty women are the most visible service members. Then after service, women veterans are the most invisible veteran. Whenever I got out, that’s exactly how I felt — invisible,” Plescher said. “I didn’t feel like I fit into the community … I was desperate to just find another person that could hear my struggle and empathize. Not just sympathize but have that lived experience … Eventually, I was able to find Grace After Fire and that gave me a sense of belonging.” 

In 2017, the organization rolled out a financial assistance program aimed at helping women veterans and their families located in several Texas counties with intentions of introducing or adding a financial literacy program down the line. 

The organization also offers opportunities for women veterans to connect with one another through social events and an annual retreat, which is something that the veterans look forward to each year.  

“We’re pulling you out of the fire because we’re educating you, we’re giving you resources, and we’re helping you gain your [sense of] community back,” Peacock told Salud America! “Our retreats … it is just amazing to attest to the impact that the camaraderie and sisterhood gained from our retreats provides our ladies.”  

Finding Grace After Fire 

After dedicating yourself to years of service, where committing yourself to the service of your country is the only thing you’ve known, sometimes it can be hard to find yourself.

Courtesy of Grace After Fire

Regardless of gender, many military veterans suffer from health ailments, some of which don’t qualify for disability, making it difficult to find work and provide for themselves and their families. 

Others face severe mental illnesses stemming from their time and experiences in the military, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, anxiety, and depression. 

Without support from military resources and fellow veterans, overcoming these life-changing challenges can be difficult.  

The path to healing is long and winding, but Grace After Fire is there to pick up those who are falling, but never left behind. 

Since 2016, the organization has amassed over 5,000 members. 

“In the military, you work with a team, and you operate together,” Peacock said. “The empowerment part is that you each have to do your part, you can’t not do your part, you have to stand up and you have to show up.” 

Latina Veteran Representation 

Women represent 17.5% of US active-duty personnel, according to 2022 demographic statistics from the US Department of Defense 

“Women are the fastest growing population going into the military and coming out of the military,” Plescher said. “Women have never been drafted but have always participated in every single conflict. Even when they were told no, they found a way. They still joined or participated in some way … Yet we are the ones with the fewest resources.”  

Concerning race, over two thirds of active-duty members identify as white, while the remaining active-duty population identifies as another racial minority group. 

Ethnically, 18.4% of active-duty members identify as Latino. 

Being overlooked and underrepresented in the military is nothing new for the Latina veteran.  

However, being in the company of another woman service member can help Latina veterans find solace, feel understood, and be heard, Peacock said. 

“It really doesn’t matter what your background and what your color is, it is that you served, I serve, and there’s an instant connection,” she explained. “You belong here because there’s that automatic military connection — that veteran connection. It doesn’t matter if you were Air Force, Coast Guard, Army, Navy, or Marine Corps.” 

Olivia’s Story with Grace After Fire 

Trigger Warning: The following contains brief mentions of sexual assault and domestic violence. 

San Antonio resident and former radioman in the US Navy Olivia Zavala Carridine’s military journey didn’t get off on the right start.  

Before she even made it to bootcamp, Olivia shared that she was sexually assaulted by a Navy recruiter.  

That traumatic experience was the then 23-year-old’s first introduction into military life and set the tone for much of her career in the Navy. 

While navigating being away from home, coming to grips with the trauma that had occurred, and dealing with the emotional and physical demands of bootcamp, Olivia developed digestive issues that continue to this day.

Olivia and her mother at her graduation from bootcamp

“I get to bootcamp and I’m going through all these things. I think that’s who I became — a survivor,” she said. “Those things that I couldn’t control, that I wasn’t able to control at bootcamp … All I could control was what I could do to get through what I had to get through and survive.” 

Olivia also had to grapple with being seen in the military, not only as a woman, but as a Latina. 

“I believe that being a Latina could have opened a lot more doors for me. I could have flourished and achieve things that I’ve come to see other female, Latinas, achieve,” Olivia explained. “I feel I could have been one of those if I had more support and services that I needed.” 

Throughout her time in the military, Olivia went through several duty stations where she encountered a new set of problems and challenges. 

While in the military, Olivia juggled a career and being a wife and mother, which caused a lot of conflict between her and her then-veteran husband — sometimes physical.  

Olivia ended her relationship with the military after 5 years of active-duty service and 5 years as a US Navy reservist.

Transitioning out of the military was particularly difficult for the then-wife and mother of four. 

Due to being just a few dollars over the maximum income requirement, Olivia didn’t qualify for the medical and food assistance benefits she needed to take care of her family. 

Olivia will never forget what was said when she was denied. 

“‘Thank you for your service. I’m really sorry,’” she recalled. “I felt like me and my family weren’t a priority. No more than I have been a priority when I was active duty as a woman … That was like the wake-up call that I’m fending for myself.” 

Following her transition from the military, Olivia tried to navigate her new life by taking jobs as an electrician and a postal worker with the US Postal Service. 

While working as a postal worker, she sustained a serious head injury, making it difficult to work. 

The workman’s compensation fell through, and Olivia eventually divorced from her husband. 

“We come back home, we integrate back to the family — whether the function or dysfunction of it — we move forward, it’s in our culture,” Olivia thought. “We’re supposed to endure that. We’re supposed to accept it or settle for that. I think that there’s several things that Latina women in the military struggle with.” 

That’s when she began to struggle with homelessness — a hurdle that many transitioning from the military encounter.  

It was during this time that she sought out resources and came across Grace After Fire, which inspired her to finally file a disability claim with Veteran’s Affairs.

Courtesy of Olivia Zavala Carridine (pictured center)

Even though she was declared 70% disabled, diagnosed with PTSD and depression, she qualified for limited benefits. 

Several years later she reconnected with Grace After Fire, which has given Olivia and many others a chance to heal from military traumas while being provided resources to get back up on their feet again.  

“It has allowed me to know that I’m not unique,” Olivia attested. “It has empowered me to believe that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my story. Although I might believe it only happened to me. It didn’t only happen to me.” 

“I have a sisterhood with women that I didn’t have many times with my sisters serving alongside me,” she added later.  

Through Grace After Fire, Olivia has taken ownership of her veteran status and proved to herself that she was deserving of the help and resources she had earned being part of the military. 

After 3 years with Grace After Fire, she is looking to give back to her fellow women veterans who may be going through the same things by volunteering to Facilitate and host peer-to-peer support group meetings. 

While Grace After Fire continues to heal the wounds left behind by the military through providing sisterhood, the root causes of military trauma still need to be addressed if anything is to change. 

“Even when we’re speaking the same language as a woman, I’m just trying to make it through the day,” Olivia said. “I think the day will come when that’ll change, and I think the day will come when less women deal with military sexual trauma.” 

Giving Grace After Trauma 

If you are a woman veteran in need of help to deal with trauma or other issues, visit Grace After Fire and explore their resources and tools. 

Yet veterans aren’t the only ones who struggle with trauma.  

Many families carry some of the weight of the trauma left behind by the military, especially in instances of domestic violence. 

Just like women veterans must give themselves grace to heal from the physical and mental trauma they endured during their time in the military, schools should give children who experienced trauma grace.  

That’s why Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of Salud America! and the Latino health equity program at UT Health San Antonio, with help from Andrea Darr, of the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, created the Handle with Care Action Pack 

Designed for children who have encountered trauma, the Action Pack gives police, school, and mental healthcare leaders the tools to institute a Handle with Care program. 

The Handle with Care program bridges the gap of communication between police and schools, giving law enforcement a way to notify schools when they encounter a child at a traumatic scene and the schools can provide support. 

“When police come across kids at a scene of domestic violence, drug raid, or accident, they send school districts a simple heads up. They send the child’s name, age, and school, with a simple message to ‘Handle with Care,’” said Darr. No confidential or incident information is shared. “Schools prepare to give trauma-sensitive support and connect those kids and families to mental healthcare services.” 

Download the free Salud America!Handle With Care Action Pack.” 

By The Numbers By The Numbers



of Latino kids suffer four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACES).

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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