“I want to have just a simple little place, maybe a front porch. Somewhere I can live out in peace, and not deal with a lot drama. Just a peaceful little place where I can play my music loud, have a garden and my animal, and a door between me and the world.”
Melissa Jackson, U.S. Air Force (former)
“I grew up in Tullahoma, Lynchburg, Tennessee. We grew up very poor, so there was a lot of family abuse. There was a lot of alcohol abuse. However, my mother was a good mother. She did the best she could with the tools she had. We were raised with very high morals.
My brother did two tours of duty in Vietnam. My uncle died in the Pacific. Law Enforcement and the military runs through my family, so I sort of followed suit when I got to be eighteen, [and I joined the Air Force]. I was a Medical Administrative Specialist, McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey. I maintained medical records, did a little bit of coding, just sort of retrieving the records. I was the person you’d meet and who would say, ‘What’s your last four?’ I’d put the paperwork in there when you finished the doctor’s appointment. I was only in for between ’81 and ’82.
I was sexually assaulted by four military police officers in February of ’82, left for dead in the snow with physical injuries, and back then it wasn’t something that we talked about. It was at night outside the Airman’s Club. I was raped and sodomized, beaten, but I knew not to shower. I went into the room and I just sat in the dark all night, tried to think. I can’t call the military police. They’re the ones that did it. I can’t call the civilian police, because they’re going to tell me it’s a military matter. I worked in the clinic, so I thought, I’ll go in there, and they’ll see my injuries, and they’ll bring it up, and that’ll open the door for me to talk about it.
Well, I worked all day and nobody mentioned it. I got looks of disdain, like maybe my boyfriend had beat me up, or maybe I deserved what I got. So at 4:00 when everybody else was getting ready to leave, I went back and talked to my own primary doctor, and I said, this is what happened to me last night. I could tell he was pained by it. It was like he was working with his arms tied behind back, and he knew what was going to happen if he brought it up. He reached out and he handed me a tube of ointment, and he said, ‘Here’s this.’ And that’s what he told me, he said, ‘If you pursue this, it’s going to ruin your military career, and if I help you, it will ruin mine.’ At that point, I just shut it up inside, and so that I ended up with the nightmares, and the flashbacks, the panic attacks, the fear. I would drink to a blackout just to make it stop.
I started drinking and ended up with, although at the time we didn’t know it, PTSD. I had some minor infractions, like I didn’t pay my airman’s bill one month. I tested over the limit on a blood alcohol test, that sort of thing, because I had kept my mouth shut, and just started trying to deal with it the best way I could
Within a few months of my reporting it, they put me on a plane back to Atlanta, and gave me an Honorable Discharge, but with a Personality Disorder, because back then like I said, they didn’t talk too much about PTSD. So for thirty-two years, I never discussed it again. I was very angry. I wanted to be a lifer.
I raised a son on my own. I couldn’t work, so I drew SSI. So I raised a son on seven hundred dollars a month. My mother died in ’99, and I’ve been isolated from my family because they couldn’t understand why I had these issues, and they didn’t want to be around me, and so we’ve been completely estranged. I’ve got a brother and two sisters that I’m estranged from still, but it was lonely and miserable.
About three years ago, I hooked up with some people with the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) on Facebook. They’re based out of Washington, D.C., and they deal with issues, primarily military sexual trauma. But they deal with other issues that affect women in the military, and then when you’re discharged. I didn’t know that benefits were available for that offense, and they directed me and helped me, guided me through that process. The doctor didn’t bring it up to anyone else at the time, but he did document everything, all my injuries and everything, and I was lucky. So they awarded me one hundred percent with no employability and no further reviews. So, I do have one hundred percent now, and I’ve been advocating. I’ve spoken in Washington, in front of Congress, and in front of three hundred survivors, and finally told my story. So, I’m going through a sort of delayed healing process now. It was hell. It was absolute hell.
You know there are a lot of women who face housing problems, marital problems when they get out, custody problems, those sorts of things. They just generally advocate and they help to get legislation initiated, and they speak out where others are afraid to speak out. They’re very bold and courageous women and they don’t back down. I’ve had people in California and Hawaii drop everything and get on email with me and get me through a day, you know, or lead me to the person that I need to talk with to get something resolved. They do some really good work.
I still suffer from nightmares, and just a lot of the symptoms of PTSD that I just can’t seem to get a grip on still. But, I’m more functional than I have been, and I think coming out with that secret has helped me more than anything.
There are outlets now, and that’s why I work with SWAN, and I advocate for other women, and men, too. It happens to men, actually more often than it does with women, and that’s been sort of an outlet for me. But it’s a lot better for the younger people that are in now. The Vietnam veterans and the Korean veterans, all them, they have absolutely no outlet for that, and it was happening back then, too. So it’s progressively gotten better. But I find that most of the people who are in now and have suffered from that, they go directly from the military out into service to other survivors, and so there is an outlet. It is getting better. It’s not where it should be, but it is getting better. At least they will compensate you if you’re evidence-based now.
To make a long story short, when I got my compensation I went out and I bought everything that I wanted, furniture of my own and everything, after struggling to raise my son. He’s brilliant. I had groomed him, and when he graduated from high school, he had a two hundred thousand dollar scholarship to UT, an academic scholarship, but he met a girl online and he blew it, so we’ve had some struggles over the past year. I ended up having to make him leave my house, because he got physical with me. We moved to Knoxville, and I moved into a house that had black mold, so I ended up losing quite a bit of my furniture. I got mold sick. I was malnourished and anemic. They were giving me cancer nausea medication, so I had to go into the Domiciliary, and they saved my life over there.
Veterans have reached out when no one else was there for me. When I left my house that had mold, I had just gotten a DUI. I was looking at time in jail. My family had abandoned me. My son wasn’t speaking to me. I was living in the house, very sick. I called a fellow in Knoxville named Ed and I said, ‘Ed, I don’t even have any way to move my things to storage, and I’m so sick I can’t even lift a spoon to my mouth.’ I was sitting out on my porch one day, and all of a sudden this flotilla pulls up in front of my house with Harley Davidsons and flatbed trucks. It was a bunch of Vietnam Veterans, and they moved my stuff into storage for me.
When I was supposed to go in the Dom the next day, they sent me up to Johnson City the night before, put me up in a five-star hotel, paid for all my meals. Since then, I have had veterans to turn to when no one else was there, because we take care of each other… especially Vietnam Veterans. They know how it is to be treated poorly and overlooked, and they will come to your side. I even had one of those veterans who moved me, he gave me his rabbit’s foot that he had for two tours of duty in Vietnam, and I still have that. It’s priceless. So I still have a lot of struggles, but there are options out there for veterans if they will take the time to get involved. And when you help someone, there’s a common saying in Twelve-Step Programs. You can’t keep it unless you give it away, and that’s exactly their philosophy, too.
The Domiciliary is the inpatient facility there in Johnson City, and they have them everywhere. They treat everything from your physical ailments, they try to get you in there and get you back on track with your medication, your appointments, any surgeries that you might need. If you have substance abuse issues, they put you through a treatment program. Then, they have a special program called psychosocial that they primarily treat veterans with PTSD. It’s a good rounded program that’s quite understaffed. Once you get in there and get your initial appointments taken care of, you’re sort of warehoused.
There are very strict rules. With substance abuse problems relapse, they acted quite a bit differently between the men and the women. The men, if they relapsed, would get written up or put on restriction, and the women get booted out the door. There are only five women there on average for a hundred and forty men. That’s still an issue that we deal with, trying to get equal everything. It’ll be a struggle for a long time.
I relapsed, and had to leave the Domiciliary. I moved into a extended stay hotel for about six months, and there were a lot of things that I didn’t want to be around going on over there. When I moved in, it was January, so it was cold, and so I pretty much stayed to myself. As the weather would begin to get warmer, people would sit out on the stoops, and they would drink. They would use drugs. You would go to take your trash out, and they would catcall you, that sort of thing, and the landlord wouldn’t do anything about it. There was prostitution going on, and I just felt desperate to get out of there. I felt this huge pressure and a big trauma coming. Stress is my weakest point, and I thought, I couldn’t save money while I was there, because of having to pay bills. I couldn’t save money for deposits and all that. I draw three thousand dollars a month, but the problem is if I pay rent and car payments, and my insurance, and my storage, and all that, I can’t save enough for deposits to get moved into a place that would be good for me. So, I need a place where I can save money. So that’s kind of why I went back into the Domiciliary, hoping that I could do it there.
When I was there I was sexually harassed. With my background, it’s really traumatic. This last time I was over there, I had to attend a group. It was mandatory, all men, which I don’t have any problem with. I’m used to dealing with men, and I’m used to when I was in the service the sexual harassment was sort of hazardous duty. We knew what we were getting into. But I had to listen to this one guy who was schizophrenic. I tried to cut him some slack, but he started talking in the group one day about how to rape a woman with Rohypnol, and get away with it, and all the things you could do while she was under the influence of this drug, and I just absolutely lost it.
I went to the right people. I said, ‘Look, you’ve got stop this.’ They patted him on the wrist, and kept him in there, and every day I was confronted with seeing him in the hall, being stuck in the elevator with him by myself. It was causing me to have more nightmares about what happened to me, what could possibly happen to me, and they knew what was going on with me! They knew I was going through a crisis, and they didn’t reach out to me, didn’t help me in any way, and I relapsed. I’m not blaming the relapse on them. That was my weakness, but they should have seen it coming, and they should have taken more proactive measures. At that point I thought you know, with a hundred and forty men over there every day, you deal with it. You hear it a lot, and so it was just not conducive for me to save money, and it’s hard to stay to yourself. It’s hard to mind your own business, and so I feel like they did let me down. They did let me down. I feel like the VA, even though I have hundred percent medical care, they’re letting me down.
After I relapsed again, I had to leave [the Domiciliary].
I hadn’t saved any money, and my things are in storage, and so my option was to come here [The Salvation Army]. I was really reluctant simply because it was a homeless shelter, but I feel like I’ve gotten more help here, and more compassion here just in the month I’ve been here, than the entire time I was in the Domiciliary. The difference, I think, is that William here is phenomenal. He cares. He really cares, and he would do anything he could. So I think that’s the difference, a sort of a less generic and more personal level of care. He gets to know you on a personal level, and what your needs are, what your strengths are, and what your weak points might be.
I’ve got a little Mitsubishi Mirage, and I go get in my little car and I crank the stereo up. Sometimes I’ll drive to Big Stone Gap, just singing my heart out. (Laughs) Like, okay, there goes the stress. I’m good. I can go back now. It’s my outlet. I love everything but classical, and that’s because classical doesn’t have a beat. But I listen to everything. I really love The Dixie Chicks. I love Rascal Flatts, and I love Neil Young, and I even listen to some Rap. It’s music.
I’m an artist. I paint with acrylics, and I do craft work, and all kinds of things like that. I pretty much put that down a while back, and I’ve picked it up again since I’ve been here, which I never did at the Dom. [I paint] mostly abstracts. It’s more about color with me, than it is anything else. I have OCD, and it’s a little bit difficult, because seems like everything has to be symmetrical. What you’ve got on the left side, you’ve got to have on the right side, so it limits me artistically. But my goal is to move to Elizabethton or the Hampton Area close to Watauga Lake, and when I do get settled, I’ve got probably another surgery coming up. But once I do get settled, I’m hoping that I can get in with the Warrior’s Canvas over there. It’s an art museum run by veterans, and they’re like me. They’re firm believers that art is a wonderful therapy for PTSD. They offer classes. They help you with supplies, art supplies. They’ll even show your work. They like for you to come in, if you do all that. They like for you to come in and volunteer with other veterans, and it’s spectacular.
I’m fifty-three, and I’m trying to find a job I can work. I’d like to be on better terms with my son, although he’s nineteen and he’s dating a sixteen-year-old girl, so I can’t enable him right now. I won’t condone it. I’m on the waiting list for a service animal. I can’t get him until I establish stable housing. I want to have just a simple little place, maybe a front porch. Somewhere I can live out in peace, and not deal with a lot drama. Just a peaceful little place where I can play my music loud, have a garden and my animal, and a door between me and the world.”