Read the latest article of BPW Foundation’s every-other-week Joining Forces feature that brings us the voices of women veterans telling their stories. If you are a women veteran who would like to share your story, please contact us through our Joining Forces for Women Veterans Facebook page, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
From HomeLESS to HomeOWNER! (Part one of a two-part series: Jessica Campbell’s story)
Life in a Nutshell -The Road to Homelessness
In 2002, at the age of 21, I made the decision to quit wandering around the small Arkansas town I’m from and to make something of myself. I chose to enlist in the Army. I spent several months in basic and advanced training in the field of Communications, learning how to be a Networking Systems Switching Operator or, in layman’s terms, to set up networks for phone and internet access. I learned how to use large computers mobilized on HMMWVs to perform system and network operations in the field, including development of user databases and ongoing preventative maintenance and troubleshooting. I was also awarded a Secret clearance. Once this training concluded, I was shipped to my permanent duty station in Georgia…. only to be shipped off to war six weeks later.
I spent 10 months serving in Kuwait and Iraq attached to a Large Extension Network team, a moving convoy of HMMWVs responsible for providing communications for the front line. We had no protection, no combat unit providing cover during our missions following the moving operations around the country while Baghdad was being bombed. We unexpectedly took fire during a one-day mission, barely avoiding injury and knowing we were sitting ducks.
Living in the line of fire day after day creates a stressful, constant paranoia, although it is required to stay alive, there is a cumulative mental and physical toll.
When I came home I was a different person. I couldn’t feel, couldn’t think, couldn’t function the way I used to. I seemed to be in a state of shock, and began self-medicating with alcohol to deal with the insomnia. This led to trouble in my military life – I had a hard time making morning formations after being up all night, unable to sleep. My coping mechanism, alcohol, earned me a DUI and the embarrassment and shame that goes along with it…with family, friends, and my own self image. When my unit was issued orders for deployment again, I didn’t go—I decided to accept a general discharge instead of going overseas. I couldn’t do it again.
Once released from active duty, I didn’t have anywhere to go. There wasn’t any transition help available—for a job or anything. I ended up approaching the VA hospital in Florida for help with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms I had. They dealt with me in a dismissive manner – prescribed medication and sent me on my way. I wasn’t mentally equipped to deal with everyday life at that point, my part-time job at Home Depot involved dealing with customers, and I really couldn’t handle the “in-your-face” attitude many of the civilians I was working with had. After bouncing around from friend-to-friend’s homes aimlessly for a couple of years, I finally exhausted my resources and had to admit that I was homeless.
Now in South Carolina, I again approached the VA for assistance. They gave me a list of local shelters. I approached several of the shelters, but was denied entry because I wasn’t broken enough.
I didn’t come from prison. I didn’t suffer from alcoholism. I hadn’t been battered physically. I didn’t have children. I didn’t meet any of the criteria needed to receive their help. Thank goodness the last shelter on the list, Angel’s House, had space for me. After spending two months there and completing a job training program with the local non-profit, Fast Forward Community Technology Center, I saved up enough money to strike out on my own. I also secured a full-time job with a company offering medical benefits, 401K benefits with full vesting, and vacation time.
I still can’t afford a lot of luxuries, like internet and cable, but I am on my own two feet and getting better every day.
It took four years. Four years for me to go from active duty and traumatized to satisfactory civilian employment and independent living. If I could influence the transition process for any service member returning to civilian life, it would be to have more access to information about programs and services that are available to veterans, best and worst case scenarios.
I wasn’t prepared when I left active duty, and I don’t think anyone should leave the service without going through transition or re-entry services.
(Stay tuned for Part II: What a Difference a Year Makes!)
As told to and edited by Danielle Corazza