The ‘Invisible Monster’: A Homeless Female Veteran’s Journey to Take Back Her Life from PTSD

casondra williams

Casondra Williams spent years homeless and suffering from PTSD until she received help and treatment from VA.

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.”

National Center for PTSD homepage

Find information and assistance at the National Center for PTSD homepage

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.

National Center for PTSD AboutFace homepage

Learn from Veterans how PTSD treatment can turn your life around

“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.”

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23 Comments to “The ‘Invisible Monster’: A Homeless Female Veteran’s Journey to Take Back Her Life from PTSD”

  1. Rose says:

    My friend says the VA has turned its back on him and has offered him minimal assistance with his PTSD. I thought about joining the military. Not sure if I want to be left high and dry after serving my country though….

    • Troy Allen says:

      Turned its back? I was a Claim Processor ( VSR) for the VA and we never turned our back. Rather it’s easier to blame than face the fact, that we asked for evidence that couldn’t be provided. and He didn’t ask for a MENTAL EXAM. Also he could use the VA Community Based clinic to get help inspite of no proof it happened as a result of his service. My advice is find out for yourself and keep a copy of EVERY medical anything you do in the Military. Get contact information of buddies you serve with…

      best wishes, and GO NAVY!

  2. Steve says:

    Casondra.
    Thank you for sharing your personal story. Hopefully it will encourage others to come forward and take their lives back as well. Recovery works!! You are so beautiful in so many ways.

    • sherry says:

      hello to all veterans,life for me was very hard on me in the military,I left for the army at the age of 18teen and had never left home untill that day sept.22 1970.I was stationed at ft.gordon for mos. It was on a saturday night when a bunch of us women went to the officer club to party.as the evening went on some of the guys we drank with gave me a ride back to the barricks.Sadly the driver made a u-turn as two of the men in back with me forced me to have sex and they all raped me over and over again.I lost that memorie untill 1994 after my brother had been killed.I started getting flash backs the worst I ever had.So I reached out to the va in miwaukee hospital.I cant say enough about this va hospital This hospital is rated as one of the best in the united states.Ive reached out and their was a hand reaching out to help me stand up and face the demons.Iam getting help in therapy and dealing with my addictions.Please dont give up on your life we all need each other and we dont have to fight alone ever again.I thank god iam recieving my va compensation at 100% .God bless all veterans .sherry

  3. christena says:

    Thank you! I am in the beginning stages of getting back on my feet. My daughter and I were homeless as well last year, after battling with my Iraq PTSD for 10 years now. In December I found us a house got her out of juvy. Right now I am trying to fake it until I make it through this year of school and hope things just keep getting better. The VA has not helped my daughter at all and I am a 90% disabled vet and I just started getting counseling in February. After ten years after I lost everything I owned, I was middle class prior to deployment. I can’t concentrate and we are living literally off only 2 trips to the food bank every month. The only thing that keeps me breathing and trying to move forward at this point is my extremely emotionally abusive teenage daughter and my rehabilitated abused pit. I’m trying really hard to just stay focused and breath but even that is an obstacle sometimes. Anyway I wanted to thank you for the inspiration in letting me know I am not alone. Thank you! Former Spc. Jones

    • KT says:

      this breaks my heart that the efforts to just “fake it til you make it” is your motivation. I am distressed at your workds about your daughter. I wish I had the means to get you both the help you deserve, the help you earned! God Bless you both and keep you in his grace. Your efforts will get you where you want to be … just don’t give up. Keep nipping at the heels of the VA until you get the services you earned and deserve. I will keep you in my prayers.

    • Jalica says:

      Thank You Christena and Cosandra,

      For the first time hearing other women really helped to take me from this dark whole. While attending online college it has been difficult to believe that there is life, and that I can move to perform internship because of the way I now feel about the people around me.

      It is hard to believe someone cares enough to help you take steps to move pass the duress. Even now, I wonder if I can continue the 6 weeks my work in college calls for. I never wanted to believe I had PTSD but everything points to fighting against the men or the good ole- boy-network. One veteran gone does not make a difference. But to hear other women stand to open up somehow brings genuine hope to join forces.

      Why are we treated wrong for taking a stand against the ugliness of what men will do, how other women will treat you? You become an outcast, blackballed and even die. So, what is the reason to carry forward?

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Casondrea,
    Thank you for being brave enough to speak out about posttraumatic stress from military sexual trauma. Others who struggle can identify with your story and follow the path to healing. Ending the isolation by asking for help, counseling, and exercise do help battle the invisible monster. Yoga, mindfulness, and spiritual support can aid recovery too. Thank you for helping others by sharing. You are not alone.

  5. Casondrea,
    Thank you for being brave enough to speak out about posttraumatic stress from military sexual trauma. Others who struggle can identify with your story and follow the path to healing. Ending the isolation by asking for help, counseling, and exercise do help battle the invisible monster. Yoga, mindfulness, and spiritual support can aid recovery too. Thank you for helping others by sharing. You are not alone.

  6. Mary says:

    Wish I could share my story because the va here is aweful

  7. mark norton says:

    Yea I was diagnosed with PTSD about 3 years ago. I have been put on meds that take other things in my life away. When I sent in a package to the main VA they basically said that I don’t have it. So I said screw it, in the next few months I plan on moving and living in my Jeep so i am not around people. Thanks

  8. Casondrea;
    You’re a great lady for hitting this problem head on. Sorry it took so long. Take you’re monster and give it my address. I’ll but it with my batch and let them fight each other for the bosses position then the one that wins I should be able to handle it.
    Good luck to you.
    Greg

  9. N. Brown says:

    Casondrea,
    I thank you so much for sharing your story. I too, was sexually assaulted at Fort Hood . I didn’t tell anyone of my NCO’s because I didn’t think they would believe me. Not only did my attacker sexually assault me he started with sexually harassing me. I found out later that he sexually assaulted another female, but they didn’t do anything just promoted him. I thank you so very much for speaking out, and shining a light on this issue. When I started reading your story I thought we were there at the same time. Your description of this life changing event is correct the “invisible monster”. People seem to think that all scars are visible, but this is something that has changed my life forever. I also tried to commit suicide twice due to the scares that stayed with me. The flashbacks, the anger, the depression, feeling of worthlessness, and at the same time trying to fake the funk; all this is what many women suffer in silence. I’m proud of you and I’m here to tell you that you can conquer anything. I’m going back to school and in my last semester, getting ready to graduate this May. God is good!!

  10. Casondra:

    Thanks for being courageous and sharing your story. Indeed, it was a blessing to read it, as I have been diagnosed with PTSD too.

    Besides, I want to commend you taking the necessary steps to improve your situation by seeking out help from the VA. Granted, most of us have had bad experiences within the system.

    But, you seem to have had a positive one and for that I am thankful! Perhaps one day, The Lord willing, you can write a book to share your story because the world needs to hear what you have to say!

    The Lord bless and keep you is my prayer.

    Regards,

    Michael T. Harris, Sr.

  11. Yvette Wommack says:

    Thanks for being brave to release your story. I am also a PTSD disabled vet for sexual abuse which first incident happen upon my arrival to my first duty station at the age of 18. I was raped by my leader the first hour I arrived and it continued for the year and a half that I was there. Other incidents as well from other male soldiers. I was young, nieve and lost. The Va has helped tremendously with counseling and meds.

  12. Alisha says:

    Casondra,

    Your story is my story. Yet, I have been unable to return to public life. The way my unit treated me was as bad, if not worse, than the actual attacks. I can’t get near an office or typical work environment without having serious panic attacks, feelings of overwhelming vulnerability and the feeling I am going to throw up. I was diagnosed very late as well. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. This has ruined my entire life.

    I really admire your ability to work through this and make something better of your life. You are a beautiful, brave woman. A heroine in every sense of the word.

  13. Joeph Jolly says:

    Hello Consandra
    I want to first say I was never abuse while I was in the military but my own psych
    doctor- veterans said that waiting 13 years for my own 100 % disability rating gave me cilivian ptsd ,after my two firing from the united states post office in the north cal division hqts. thanks again for you words hopefully they will help past and future woman military veterans who are reaching out for service find a good base or solid connection to service they need in relationship to their need and goals too !!!
    US AIR FORCE – SGT – RETIRED

  14. T. Rose says:

    As an USAF veteran and current VA employee, I am very glad to know Cassondra is finally receiving the help she needs to move forward in her life and become a productive,functional member of society again. I am also very saddened ti hear of others’ less positive experiences with the VA system, which is (supposed) to be there to help veterans with health and benefits issues. I know this to be a problem with the medical center where I work. While there are many caring employees throughout all areas (clinical and non-clinical) that are passionate about helping all veterans, the system itself is fraught with unnecessary extensive processes, and other employees that are either burned out with the struggle, or are simply oblivious to the needs of our patient populations. Leadership is poor and as such, the overall climate of the organization is one of hopelessness and lack of confidence in leadership among the general employee population. This all translates into poor organizational performance and negative perceptions among the patient populations.

  15. Gail says:

    Casondrea,
    You are not alone with PTSD due to MST.

  16. I am glad the Washington VA has helped you. unfortunately not all V. A.’s have the staff or space to assist veterans. And the one I work at actually causes sexual trama because the service chiefs-more than one sexually harass female employees. Cover it up and then fire the whistle blowers. They also only care about scanning insurance cards falsifying reports to congress so it appears the meet mandated goals. They short all the staff, have more office space than clinical space or hospital beds and when they are not having sex with employees’, before they ruin that employees’ career or fire them they attend meetings. The eeo councilor is as corrupt as the management staff.\
    And congress can’t or wont do anything because no patient has died while this is going on.
    And if your a veteran employee and whistle blower well be doubly warned. Because all the mental health people want to do is drug you up as there are not enough staff to help the male veterans forget the female ones.

  17. Ken Tomlinson says:

    Here is something most Veterans do not know. If you are diagnosed with PTSD it is nearly impossible to get life insurance, even through USSA.
    If you do not mention PTSD on your application you might find the insurance company refusing to pay your beneficiary as they will claim your non-disclosure made the policy invalid.
    Glad to see other Vets getting better. A friend of mine went through a PTSD group therapy at VA and said it did wonders for him.

  18. Cindy says:

    In addition to being sexually assaulted by a MSgt (USAF E7) when I was a very young, new to the AF, E2 for which I was too terrified to report what happened, I was way too afraid to even tell a friend, and had to work in the same duty section for quite some time and even after I transferred out of the same duty section, I was still in the same squadron and had to see him several times a day almost every day. The other issues were after I married (both of us were active duty AF) my ex-husband verbally, physically, and sexually abused me. Again, as we were in the same squadron I was too afraid to report it or to tell anyone, even a friend about it. I also had no idea that it was even sexual abuse until many years later and I did not know until 2009 that the VA considers this sexual abuse, ptsd/mst. It is destroying my marriage and friendships, has been one of the big factors in destroying my career (I can no longer work due to a back injury, lupus, fibromyalgia, and the PTSD/MST and major depression). It seems like just when I am starting to take a step forward the universe kicks me back 10 steps. Just when me and my therapist were starting to make a tiny bit of progress my mother passed away (my father died in 2007) which opened up another big can of worms and has put the ptsd on the back burner. I know it will take time, and eventually it won’t be so bad, but that invisible monster certainly has big teeth sometimes.
    I am so glad you ladies have written your stories. Reading them give me more hope. Thank you and I hope your live continue onward to true happiness.

  19. sheila says:

    Female Vet.

    Thank You Casondra for speaking out, I’m glad you found help and are working to be a better you, I just Started my recovery 3 weeks ago. I sat here in tears reading your story. thanks again.