Pilot Mountain native Molly Mae Potter is at the forefront of a national campaign against female veteran homelessness. The life journey of this small town girl has brought this cause close to home and compelled her to campaign for the title of Ms. Veteran America.
Potter, the daughter of two veterans, grew up in Pilot Mountain with her eyes on the sky. “I always had a fascination with airplanes and space,” said Potter. After graduating from Salem Academy in 2003, she followed her passion for flight by attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University getting a degree in space physics and aerospace engineering.
Joining the Air Force after graduation, Potter became a flight test engineer. “I was flying in the back of fighter jets and testing all sorts of cool stuff,” said Potter, still with a sense of excitement in her voice. In 2010 Potter was deployed to Afghanistan where she sustained injuries from a hit by a rocket blast, changing the trajectory of her life.
She returned to the United States. “My life started going down hill,” said Potter, sharing her daily struggle to eat, sleep, and function in a productive capacity. Potter’s marriage failed and her health deteriorated. In 2013, Potter was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder which had gone untreated since her injuries.
Without support from the Air Force for diagnosing and treating PTSD, Potter relied on her family and command to insist on the proper treatment. During her treatment Potter got a service dog named Bella. “The Air Force did not have any regulations that allowed for service dogs to be with active duty Air Force members,” said Potter.
After experiencing the impact Bella made in her life, Potter resolved to get regulations in place to benefit others. “Bella really changed my life, providing the support, care, and relief that I really needed; she was the turning point in my recovery,” said Potter. Working with the Air Force, Potter assisted in changing regulations to allow service dogs for active duty members dealing with PTSD with a doctor’s recommendation.
Potter left the service to begin the next chapter of her life, but has not forgotten the challenges that she faced. Potter realized that she went through many of the circumstances that cause homelessness for veterans: a traumatic experience, PTSD, medical issues, divorce, and unemployment. “I had all the makings to be another statistic,” said Potter, explaining that not all women have the support system that helped her.
“It was a struggle to get the support. I had a mom that was able to take months off of work to help take care of me. I had an amazing command that helped me get the support I needed. And when I got out I had incredible support around me, but a lot of women don’t,” said Potter, noting that the main cause for homelessness is lack of support.
Finding Final Salute, an organization that focuses on assisting homeless female veterans, Potter knew she needed to get involved. According to Potter, female veterans make up a disproportionately large percentage of homeless in the population. “In veteran homeless shelters across the United States they (women) don’t have the support need,” said Potter, explaining that females face specific issues that are not being addressed.
“Forty-eight percent of these female veterans that are homeless have dependants under the age of 18 that they are the primary care provider for,” said Potter. Aside from no programs for the children, women in shelters are out-numbered by men, facing sexual harassment and a lack of social work and mental health assistance specific to the needs of women.
With an estimated 55,000 homeless women veterans in the United States, Final Salute is dedicated to serving female veterans and their children. “Final Salute provides normal homes across the country, where kids can go to normal schools, and women can feel like they have a normal life,” said Potter. Transitional support such as social care and case management, financial support and education, and job readiness training are a part of the services available to women with an honorable discharge.
Potter’s involvement with Final Salute is through the Ms. Veteran America campaign. “The Ms. Veteran campaign is an excellent opportunity for me to become a spokesperson, to share my story, and tell women across the United States that they are not alone in this,” Potter said.
Based on military service, public speaking, and raising awareness, Ms. Veteran is not a beauty pageant. It highlights women who display strength and courage, and recognizes that they still have a lot more to offer the world. “Final Salute uses the Ms. Veteran campaign to raise awareness and money for their foundation,” explained Potter.
After qualifying for the campaign, contestants go through three phases. The first phase is comprised of advocating for female veterans and fundraising. Phase two involves a trip to Las Vegas in May to compete in service to veterans, interview, talent, and military history. The final phase is a pageant with the top contestants in October.
“I’m asking the people of Pilot Mountain to help me help Final Salute,” said Potter, adding that she wants every female veteran to be a success story. Support can be shown by donating at: www.crowdrise.com/mva2016mollymaep. Potter also invites people to follow her journey at: www.facebook.com/mollymaep4mva2016.
Diane Blakemore may be reached at 336-368-2222 or on twitter @PilotReporter.