Below is a story I wrote for #VeteransDay #ThankAVet
. I worked hard on this story despite the weird timelines, deadlines, and access that came with it.
A version of this story was published today. I will not call it my own. I have instead posted the original text here.
I was also the photographer.
The Invisible Monster and one Homeless Female Veteran's Journey to Take Back Her Life
Casondra Williams looks away when she speaks of the silent killer. She doesn't know when her invisible monster will attack, only that it has, that it will again, and that she doesn't have to let it win.
Williams, 44, is sitting in a chair on the sixth floor of an office building staring at the impenetrable wall of a cloudy, gray building across a narrow alley. She grabs a tissue, blots her eyes, and speaks with the disciplined caution of one who has been forced, over time, to shut down in order to avoid getting hurt. She thinks about her struggle—the destructive thoughts, the personal vices, the five years she was alone and homeless—and the long suffering in silence from the abuses she endured in the army. It's a trigger, the memory of trauma, she explains, that brings her back to the places she's longed to forget.
Her thoughts take her back to Fort Jackson when she was in Advanced Individual Training. It’s 1993 and she’s 24 years old. Another soldier had repeatedly sexually harassed her. Williams went to her female drill sergeant and reported the incidents. Though she feels the matter had been effectively resolved, there were other traumatic incidents later in her career that weren’t. Williams’ silent killer, her invisible monster, was borne of those events.
“I was ashamed for a long time,” she says. “I didn’t talk to anyone about what had happened to me [in the army].”
When she stares out the window, Williams’ eyes grow dark. In her thoughts, she fast-forwards to her time at Fort Hood, when another soldier from her unit sexually assaulted her. She had reported what happened, but was told to keep her mouth shut. The threat of further assault remained, and she was continually harassed for being a whistle blower. That’s when Williams took to self-isolation, often shunning after-duty socialization, a tactic she felt was a coping mechanism for survival.
“I felt like I was no longer part of the team,” she says. “They made me feel like I was the enemy. It felt like I was thrown away. After that [assault], there’s no way to again feel like part of that team.”
The invisible monster first struck in April 2001, not long after Williams separated from the army. She'd left active duty after 8 years in uniform for a civilian front desk job at the Pentagon, a job she held for almost 3 years until succumbing to what she calls were "personal issues" that affected her performance. It was the nightmares at first, then flashbacks, irritability, and then... she trails off.
“It was a battle everyday,” she says. “I kept everyone at a distance. I couldn’t focus or interact with coworkers—I couldn’t complete basic tasks. I couldn’t communicate with my supervisor. Back then, there was no known PTSD condition. I was irritable all the time because I never knew when the invisible monster would attack, or why.”
Williams left the Pentagon in 2003. Not long after, she lost her apartment. She bounced from temp job to temp job, but she could barely function. She was frustrated, panicked, and alone.
“It was scary,” she says. “There were a lot of days where I took a suitcase to work, not sure where I was going to sleep that night.”
For the next three years, Williams was homeless and mostly jobless. She had stayed in multiple group therapy houses in Virginia and Maryland, some of them catering to domestic violence cases, or to various hotels and houses of male acquaintances. None of them ever worked out or could provide her the safety and stability she needed to get back on her feet.
“There were days where I had a roof, but no food,” she says.
Finally, in 2006, Williams took what she felt was the biggest chance of her life: She went to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington, D.C. She was broke, hungry, emotionally scarred, and oblivious to the resources and benefits VA could help her with.
“I was already at bottom, and I was desperate,” she says. “I wasn’t feeling well. I was sick—and that sucks. Being sick is one thing, but being sick and on the streets is just so much worse. I didn’t even know what VA could do for me, but I walked in anyway.”
For Williams, the chance paid off.
“That’s how I found out I had PTSD,” she exclaimed. “Before I went to the VA, I never connected the dots that the way I had been feeling—all the nightmares and flashbacks and anxiety and inability to function—all of that was related to what happened to me in the army.
“It was difficult to talk about,” she admits. “Even today.”
A month later, Williams was put in contact with someone from HUD-VASH, the Department of Housing and Urban Development – VA Supportive Housing program, a joint effort between HUD and VA to move Veterans and their families out of homelessness and into permanent housing. Until her Housing Choice Voucher was approved, VA arranged for Williams to stay at a homeless shelter in Virginia.
“It wasn’t a picnic,” she says, “but it gave me the motivation to get out of that situation.”
While there, Williams met other Veterans in similar predicaments. Though she was hesitant to tell her own story, she grew confident in hearing others tell theirs. She soon became a resident adviser, and enjoyed helping other Vets. She even managed to save a little bit of pay.
“Not much, though” she adds, with a glimmer of a smile lighting up her face.
With that newfound confidence, Williams began a slow return to normal life. She began volunteering at the VADC Hospital—and when she was ready, she started video recording her own story, uploading the videos to YouTube, a way for her to reach out and connect with other MST survivors.
“Don’t isolate yourself,” she warns. “It’s easy to hide. It’s easy to push people away.”
Today, Williams is still in the HUD-VASH voucher program, but she’s working to get into her first home. To get out of the apartment—away from the TV and self-imposed isolation—she joined a gym. And she’s also using her Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment education benefits. She’s enrolled at University of Maryland University College, where’s she’s studying Cyber Security and Legal Studies.
She’s still adapting, still battling the invisible monster.
“PTSD encouraged me to build my own prison, and that was the nightmare. I thought I had to protect myself from everyone. I was in survival mode. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m getting there. I don’t want to isolate. I’m not going to feed it [the invisible monster].
“I’m taking my life back.”