It started after DeAndria Hardy returned from a deployment with the Marines in Senegal.
Unresolved mental health issues led to physical health issues and a downward spiral that left her discharged from the military, unemployed and couch surfing after losing her home.
Hardy, a graduate of Spartanburg High School, tried to find help through traditional veterans services, but said she found the system often difficult to navigate.
She needed help – and when she found it, she also realized that her fellow female vets needed help too.
Hardy founded the Battle Betty Foundation in 2018 with the goal of meeting struggling female vets where they are, providing them with immediate assistance, and trying to guide them to resources that will help them emerge into a healthy and productive post-military life.
The foundation operates a resource center for female veterans, the first of its kind in South Carolina. It opened in fall 2021.
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Hardy has become a leading voice for female vets statewide and has big plans for the future of the foundation.
‘Mission First’ takes a toll
When Hardy learned she was deployed, her first reaction was excitement.
It was July 2012 and his maritime combat logistics unit was heading to Dakar, Senegal. Hardy was one of approximately 600 U.S. troops participating in Operation Western Accord, a joint training and peacekeeping mission with units from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Gambia and France .
“I was going to go to Africa,” Hardy said, adding that as the black woman she dreamed of, “to see where they say we come from.”
Hardy had joined the Marines in 2009 while a student at the University of Tennessee. She served as an ammunition technician, handling artillery shells, bullets and magazines, grenades and explosives – it’s a job that requires a steady hand and quick thinking.
Hardy was prepared for the potential danger posed by live-fire training.
What she wasn’t ready for was the treatment she was getting from some soldiers from partner nations, soldiers who were supposed to be allies.
“I was a victim of military sexual trauma,” Hardy said. “It also happens a lot in the United States, but especially when women are deployed overseas. When I was in Dakar, there were less than 10 women in the whole group that was deployed.
She says she tried not to let it affect her outwardly and focused on her job. “We are Marines. It’s always ‘Mission First,’” she said.
Hardy: ‘I kept saying I was fine’
But after returning from Dakar, Hardy says she started having a lot of physical and mental health issues. These problems eventually removed her from service.
In 2014, with an honorable discharge and a college degree she was able to earn during a year of limited service, Hardy returned to civilian life.
His service was over. His struggles were not.
“I tried to work in the civilian corporate world, but I couldn’t stand it for very long,” she said.
Because much of her service was in the reserves, she was not immediately eligible for certain Veterans Administration benefits.
Hardy says she also tried to avoid asking for the help she needed. But it didn’t take long for all of this to catch up with her.
“I kept saying I was fine until I wasn’t,” she said. “For almost a year I couldn’t leave my house. Of course that meant I lost my job and eventually I lost my house, and I lost my car.
With the help of friends and relatives who are also other female veterans, Hardy was gradually able to ask for help and accept it.
“They said ‘we’ve got you covered and we’ll make sure you get through this.’ They checked on me even when I didn’t care to be watched. If I didn’t answer the phone, they’d say ‘OK, we’ll see how you are tomorrow’. And they did. And they kept on do it.
Harvey recognizes the need for help for female veterans
The VA says there are approximately 2 million female veterans nationwide, about 10% of all veterans and the fastest growing segment of the veteran population.
In South Carolina, there are about 46,000 female vets, and about 1,700 of those are in Spartanburg.
But as Hardy began to seek help, she made a disturbing discovery. Although she was beginning to navigate the process at the VA, there wasn’t much private help available for female veterans in need of support.
It occurred to her that there were probably plenty of other female vets out there who needed a female “Battle Buddy” – a “Battle Betty”.
“Remembering what these women did to help me — my cousin, my sorority sister — I’m like, ‘I can do this for someone else,'” Hardy said.
Battle Betty started small. “Just give them a place where they could talk to someone who knows.” At first, the downtown Spartanburg Community College allowed Hardy to use a classroom for monthly meetings.
As the magnitude of the need became clear and Hardy was able to do more, Battle Betty grew.
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Battle Betty gets her own HQ in Jonesville
In the old Jonesville Municipal Building. Battle Betty now operates South Carolina’s first veteran women’s resource center. It opened last fall.
These resources include a shelter where homeless female vets can obtain temporary housing, as well as a “clothes closet and gear locker”. The center also provides a base for Hardy and volunteers to do street outreach.
There are much bigger plans as the organization and its resources grow, Hardy said.
The City of Spartanburg has already committed a property on Zephyr Street on the north side of Spartanburg for a halfway house. This is part of Battle Betty’s HER strategy – housing, empowerment and reintegration.
Further down the road, Hardy said the foundation plans to develop a small home community that will include 15 homes and a resource center.
“It would be a safe space to help them transition. Many hosting programs last 90 days,” Hardy said. “But for many struggling women, sometimes 90 days just isn’t enough. Having a small community of origin gives more time and space and would help with reintegration.
Hardy says she’s learned — both from the foundation’s work and from personal experience — that housing is almost always the most critical need for a struggling female vet.
Hardy says one of the main goals of Battle Betty is to break down barriers to attendance. “The most important thing, which I was very intentional about, is that as long as you’ve served, we can help you. I don’t care if you have a VA rating or how long you’ve served or if you have been honorably discharged, we can help you. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. We don’t turn anyone away.”
Hardy says she works with other organizations, like American Veterans with Disabilities, who can often help navigate the VA. But first, she wants to provide a place to stay so a vet can start this process from a safe and secure location.
Word about Battle Betty spreads
Hardy serves on the South Carolina Department of Veterans Affairs Task Forces for Female Veterans and Homeless Veterans.
“We try to make sure we’re as connected as possible so we can help as many people as possible,” says Hardy.
She even gets referrals from the VA now.
It took four years, but Hardy says she thinks that, armed with a lot of hard-earned knowledge, Battle Betty is headed in the right direction.
“Because of my experiences, I take this very, very seriously. Whenever I get the chance to learn a little more so I can help someone a little better, I want to.
This story will appear in the fall issue of Spartanburg Magazine.