Casondra Williams looks away when she speaks of her “invisible monster.” She doesn’t know when it 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 wall of a gray building across a narrow alley. She grabs a tissue, blots her eyes and speaks with the 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 explained – that brings her back to the places she’s longed to forget.
Her thoughts take her back to Fort Jackson, 1993, when she was in training. She was 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’ PTSD – what she called her “silent killer,” her invisible monster – was borne of those events.
“I was ashamed for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t talk to anyone about what had happened to me.”
She stares out the window, and fast-forwards to her time at Fort Hood when another soldier from her unit sexually assaulted her. She 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 whistleblower. That’s when Williams took to self-isolation, her coping mechanism for survival – often shunning after-duty socialization.
“I felt like I was no longer part of the team,” she said. “They made me feel like I was the enemy … 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 “personal issues” that affected her performance. It was the nightmares at first, then flashbacks, irritability and more.
“It was a battle every day,” she said. “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 job to job, but she could barely function. She was frustrated, panicked and alone.
“It was scary,” she said. “There were a lot of days when 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 victims of domestic violence; or in hotels and houses of male acquaintances. Nothing ever worked out or provided 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 said. “It was hard. Day-to-day was a blur; I just kept trying to move forward.”
Finally, in 2006, Williams – broke, hungry and emotionally scarred – took what she felt was the biggest chance of her life: She went to the VA hospital in Washington, D.C.
“I was already at rock bottom, and I was desperate,” she said. “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 said. “Before I went to VA, I never connected the dots that the way I had been feeling—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 said. “Even today.”
A month later, Williams was put in contact with someone from the 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 situations. Though she was hesitant to tell her own story, she grew confident from hearing others tell theirs. She soon became a resident adviser and enjoyed helping other Vets.
With her newfound confidence, Williams began a slow return to normal life. She began volunteering at the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center and when she was ready, she started recording her own story, uploading the videos to YouTube. It was her way to reach out and connect with other military sexual trauma survivors.
Today, Williams is still in the voucher program, but working to get into her first home. To get out of the apartment and away from self-imposed isolation she joined a gym. She’s using her Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment benefits and is 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,” she said. “I thought I had to protect myself from everyone. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m getting there.
“I’m taking my life back.”