For 20 years, Lanny Bonafilia’s job was to keep US Navy ships safe. As chief operations specialist, she was the eyes and ears of the ship, monitoring the radars and watching for any incoming aircraft.

But after retiring in July and starting to shed her uniforms, she realized she needed new clothes for the next chapter in life.

“My closet has become super thin and I only have t-shirts and yoga pants,” said Bonafilia, who wants to start a photography business with her husband.

That’s what brought her to the University of San Diego on Saturday to browse shelves of workwear at a free pop-up store hosted by Operation Dress code.

The annual event gives U.S. veterans and working women the opportunity to work with a personal shopper, get their hair and makeup done, and access career resources like professional headshots and a resume workshop.

The transition from military life is still fresh for Bonafilia, who was among some 200 veterans participating. While having her hair curled and in a new purple blazer with the tags still on, she said it was gratifying to be recognized for her time in the service.

“It’s very humbling that there is a community that cares about us,” she said.

Marcey Brightwell founded Operation Dress Code in 2014 to give back to female veterans and help them transition into the civilian workforce. The group began hosting the pop-up store in Sacramento. This is the sixth annual event in San Diego.

“It’s really about building trust,” she said. “We absolutely want (these veterans) to be able to walk out feeling their best, looking their best with the confidence they deserve and feeling the respect they’ve earned.”

Brightwell noted that the entire event is supported by volunteers and made possible through community donations.

Clothing racks and tables covered in jewelry, scarves, handbags and shoes filled the Hahn University Center.

Brightwell said the store attracts many veterans, but the additional services make it a one-stop shop for professional resources. Partner organizations such as CalVet, Wounded Warrior Project, Courage to Call and more had tables lined up at the entrance.

RanDee McLain, a San Diego-based Navy veteran and co-founder of Operation Dress Code, said she wished it was something she had when she left the military.

“I didn’t really know how to transition,” she said. “You’ve been wearing a uniform for so long, you don’t know how to dress to be successful.”

She noted that some of the unique challenges for female veterans include balancing family life and finding purpose while adjusting to a new pace.

Despite higher education rates, female veterans experience higher unemployment rates than their male counterparts, according to an annual survey by the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project.

Jessica Wood – who is attending her second Operation Dress Code event – said in her experience that it can be difficult for women to accept help after being immersed in a male-dominated field.

“It’s a man’s world. They’re not asking for help. You’re not asking for help,” Wood said of the military. She added that she’s working on asking for help. more often when needed.

Wood, who served 13 years in the Navy and Army, works as a caregiver and earns $15 an hour. After graduating from high school in a few weeks, she wants to pursue a better paying job that matches her skills and her passion for helping other veterans.

These free clothes and services will help her get there, she said. Tears filled her eyes as she gestured toward the clothes racks and buzzing volunteers.

“It’s amazing. It’s a gift I can never repay,” she said.