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A Phoenix center designed to help returning female veterans has been in business for more than a year and a half, but the biggest challenge still lies ahead.

Mary Ellen's Place opened in May 2011 near Third Street and Hatcher Road in Phoenix with 15 furnished studio apartments to help U.S. military women reintegrate into civilian life.

It's the only facility of its type in the state.

"It's doing exactly what we wanted to do with getting women on their feet," said Joan Sisco of Veterans First, the nonprofit behind Mary Ellen's Place. "They're able to get good jobs, move out and get their own apartments."

The lack of affordable housing and jobs continues to be a problem for America's returning veterans. Sisco said some of the women were homeless, or on the verge of homelessness.

"They were living in their cars or would've been living in their cars," she said. "We came down and got them so they'd have a place to stay."

Sisco said she has seen women coming back who are facing drug and alcohol abuse and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With the planned troop drawdown in Afghanistan in 2014, she knows even tougher days are ahead.

"We have to be prepared for that," Sisco said. "We've always felt the VA does what it can, but it's the responsibility of this nation and nonprofits to step up."

The next project on Sisco's list is Sallie's Place, which will provide affordable housing for female veterans with children. This project consists of eight two-bedroom apartments and is located just a few blocks from Mary Ellen's Place.

After two tours of duty in Iraq, an army veteran found out that coming home again would be the biggest challenge of her life.

Kelly Schramm worked in an Army combat hospital in Iraq until 2006. She spent the next few years just getting by while going to school in Florida until she had a major depressive episode. She spent the next month in her apartment.

"I found myself without a place to live," she said. "I did the couch surfing thing for a while. I was looking at homelessness and it was very scary."

Schramm heard about Mary Ellen's Place while attending a veterans retreat in Payson. It wasn't long until she moved into Mary Ellen's Place.

"A lot of the struggles I've had with PTSD have been isolating, not wanting to be around people," she said. "Here there's a lot of other women going through the same struggles."

And when it comes to PTSD, Schramm said it's more common than people believe.

"It is my personal opinion that if you go to war and come home and say yYou don't have PTSD, nine times out 10, they're in denial. It's very prevalent."

Schramm said she's on the way back from reaching rock bottom because of Mary Ellen's Place. She'd been close to living in her car. Now she's attending Arizona State University with the hope of becoming a doctor.

"For someone with PTSD to keep it together for a 15-week semester is a big thing," she said.

Jim Cross, Reporter

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