Kristin Leone felt the call to service and helping others ever since her childhood in Mt. Laurel.
Coming from a family with a military background, Leone thought she might eventually find herself in the military. After graduating from Lenape High School, she went on to earn a nursing degree and worked at multiple hospitals in Philadelphia and South Jersey over two decades.
Leone now lives in Berlin and works at Virtua of Voorhees in the ICU, on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In years prior, the DeSales University graduate’s work has included stints in critical care units and pediatric care.
After more than 10 years at various facilities, including the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Cooper Hospital, Leone said she reached a point where after years of nursing, she was ready to pursue the next phase of her life: military service.
“I was a nurse long before I joined the service,” she noted. “I’ve always felt the desire, growing up, to want to help others and take care of others and nursing just seemed so natural to me in that respect.
“As I grew into my career, I had that desire to be a part of something that is bigger than myself and to serve more people on a bigger scale, all while doing things that I wouldn’t get to do on the civilian side of things.”
She was ready to enlist.
“It was now or never is how I looked at it,” Leone recalled. “There’s always that fear of the unknown, but I hit a point in my life that I wanted to pull the trigger and finally pursue that dream because it’s something I’d believed I’d always wanted to do my entire life.”
Ready for the challenge, Leone enlisted in the Navy Nurse Corps Reserve in 2010; five years later, she was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where she stayed for approximately seven months.
Shortly after returning home, Leone was pursuing her master’s degree at Drexel University when she saw a documentary, “Served like a Girl.” It follows the transitions of several American women from active duty to civilian life and their battles with issues like homelessness and PTSD.
“When I watched it, I thought it was a great cause to raise money for and just be a part of as a way to support my fellow sisters-in-arms,” Leone recalled.
In that moment, Leone told herself she wanted to find a way to help women veterans. Now, a few years later, she is one of 25 finalists in the Ms. Veteran America 2020 competition to raise awareness and funds for those military women in need around the country.
“As a nurse, I’ve taken care of all different kinds of people and while I was deployed, I took care of people from all over the world,” Leone said. “The one thing that doesn’t change all over the world is human nature and the plight of people all over the world.
“As someone who’s been deployed and financially struggled in the past, but has been lucky enough to have support and not worry too much about getting through tough times, I don’t believe anyone that’s served their country should ever be homeless.”
With insight from “Served like a Girl,” Leone realized that while there are several organizations and efforts across the country to assist veterans upon their return home, not all conditions relate to women veterans.
“Women veterans are four times more likely to be homeless compared to non-female veterans, and they’re more likely to be homeless than their male counterparts,” she explained.
“A lot of VA (Veterans Administration) programs are geared towards men across the country, so they don’t have as much potential for help as male veterans,” Leone added. “Plus, as much as 70 percent of homeless women veterans are single mothers, so if there are shelters, there are then restrictions.”
Women are the fastest growing demographic of homeless veterans in the United States, a growing problem that Leone said requires quick action.
“In essence, the services aren’t there for women, and what’s out there isn’t even suitable in most cases anyway,” she noted.
As she competes in the Ms. Veteran America contest, Leone is focused on highlighting the issues of women vets in South Jersey, where people might not even be aware there are problems. Part of the competition includes raising funds on her own, and residents can donate through her Facebook page at KristinL4MVA2020 to help her fundraiser for Final Salute Inc. The nonprofit partners with Ms. Veteran America to provide homeless women veterans with safe and suitable housing.
“I have a deep sense of service when it comes to helping my fellow person, especially when it comes to veterans, but in particular when it comes to women,” Leone said. “I feel that we’re good at hiding our pain and taking care of everyone else, and we have a hard time asking for help.
“(I) had my own problems in the past, but it’s important to realize that asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak, it just means that you need help, and we all need help sometimes.”