Paulina Hicks has always done things systematically. She went to college for civil engineering, enlisted in the military out of veritable love of her country and always kept a cinched-tight savings account. Now, as a former military officer, she can’t quite understand how her life escaped her fixed grip, forcing her to assume a new title: homeless veteran.
I meet with Hicks at her home in Cabrillo Villages, a U.S. Vets-funded women’s living center in Long Beach, Calif. She’s friendly and circumspect all at once, but she eases into talking by passing me some papers — face down and neatly stapled. The papers contain a few excerpts from her impassioned journal, recounting how she was verbally and physically assaulted and raped during her nine years in the service, leading to PTSD, homelessness and living in her car.
For the first time, Hicks is sharing the details of her story. She’s opened up some with her therapist, but she says even with her family, she’s become a good “faker”.
“Our families are expecting the same person to come back home, but the ones who served know we never come back home the same. The individual is gone for good,” she writes in her journal. “I didn’t tell my family anything out of shame and the pity I felt for myself for what I’ve had to endure.”
Hicks, who’s in her 30s, was often the only female doing in-flight management special operations in the Air Force and civil engineering in the Navy. But her plight is far from unique.
The federal government’s first-ever Veteran Homelessness study released earlier this year revealed veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless than other Americans. What’s more, the report states, “Female veterans are twice as likely to be in the homeless population as they are to be the U.S. adult female population.”
President Obama’s administration has called for the end of veteran homelessness by 2015. But that won’t be possible unless more is done to understand and tackle the complexities of homelessness, says Victoria Curtin, program director at the Naomi House, a Veterans Affairs-funded recovery-oriented program for female vets in Los Angeles. She says more help is needed to address the unique challenges women vets face and the reasons they become homeless.
Some of these female vet-specific issues include having to leave children when they enlist, dealing with custody battles upon returning and recovering in shame from military sexual trauma, Curtin says. She insists more clinical help is needed for female vets and that too often women’s programs attempt to mirror men’s programs. Typically, help for men is geared toward drug and alcohol abuse and addiction.
“Alcohol and drugs are just the aftermath of the trauma,” she points out. “You could deal with the drugs and the alcohol as far as teaching them to stay away from it, but you’re not getting to the core issue of why they’re using it.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes”
Paulina Hicks didn’t battle with substance abuse. “I barely even swear,” she jokes, as she pulls at her green earrings that match her sea foam-colored cardigan.
She tells me the story of being raped at an air show by an officer she knew only by the planes he flew: F14s. “Of course, I’ll never forget his face,” she says. Hicks tells me she was also raped by someone who broke into her dormitory when she was stationed in Texas. And she describes how she was verbally and physically assaulted by a superior in Oregon while she worked with him every day for three years in a secured room the size of a kitchen. She reported a few incidences of verbal abuse, which were loosely investigated. But she kept most things a secret.
Hicks is far from alone. Last month, it was widely reported that two men and 15 women sued the Department of Defense for allowing a military culture that fails to prevent rape. A Pentagon spokesman said in a statement that “sexual assault is a wider societal problem” and that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was working to ensure that the military was “doing all it can to prevent and respond to it,” according to the New York Times.
“I was the only female and my job was classified. It was top secret. You fear for life a lot of times,” Hicks explains to me. “I constantly reevaluated everything as to whether I should suck it up or take the risk of saying something. I sucked it up for a while; I just thought, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.'”
She dealt with it by sneaking out of town on her time off and just hiding — existing, really, she says — in a hotel. She volunteered for temporary duty assignments overseas whenever possible. “Saudi Arabia, anywhere a few times a year to get away.”
When Hicks reached her breaking point, she told her commander she was resigning, saying she was going back to school. She left at the end of 2008 and had three potential jobs lined up — one of which was in the nuclear civil engineering department at Pearl Harbor. But the economy took a turn that fall and she got a shocking one-line email saying she wouldn’t be needed after all.
She lived with family in Northern California and did odd jobs, even applying to waitressing positions and volunteering at homeless shelters.
“I remember volunteering at a soup kitchen and seeing the homeless people, thinking it was heartbreaking.”
Hicks moved into the Long Beach housing unit last year. She tells a story of living with a family of five, with whom she’d share food and supplies when their money was tight.
“I don’t know where God gave me the strength to help people as broken as I am,” she said. “But we only have each other.”
One of the women Hicks lives with is Jennifer John, whose 15-year-old daughter is also a resident. John, who was in the military for four years, has been homeless since 2006. When we sit down to talk, she’s boisterous and unrestrained with smart, snappy opinions. Then in the next breath, she reveals, softly, many of the hardships she’s faced that are unique to being a female veteran.
When John, 42, left Kelly Air Force Base in Texas in 1993, she went back to her home in the Caribbean for a brief stint. But set on making it on her own, she returned to Texas. Within a couple years, she met her then-husband, got married and had a daughter. In addition to the misfortune of enduring some financial problems, she says she felt somewhat of an identity crisis after being accustomed to such a harsh, regimented lifestyle — only to switch gears into being a mother and wife.
“You’re trying to be your tough self but also a nurturer,” she explains. “My husband would say, ‘OK now you’re trying to tell me how to do my job as husband and dad.'”
John admits one of her most trying problems was feeling lost adjusting to civilian life. “When you’re in the service, everything’s structured with different rules and laws, things you don’t do or say. But then you get out, and if you don’t have right structure, you’re lost, like in a washing machine,” she tells me, spinning her water bottle around, then wringing her hands.
The government’s report released this year said minority veterans were more likely to be homeless, especially African-Americans. John agrees and says she’s seen this firsthand. “That’s who joins the military to escape from the negative environment they were brought up in,” she says. “They say, ‘I don’t want to be on welfare and when I leave, I will never look back.'” John says she’s seen the struggles of someone who comes from a troubled background and enlists, only to return to the same situation, not having gained a sense of direction.
John is in school for social work and would like to open her own housing center for homeless female vets one day.
Hicks is actively trying to find a job and move out on her own. She’s started seeing a therapist to deal with her PTSD, revealing her experiences little by little. “She cries whenever we talk. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” she laughs.
Hicks says she herself hasn’t cried in years. Not even when she was forced to live in her car for weeks. At that point, she says she felt so much pain that she thought she was undergoing a heart attack. “I was waiting to drop,” she says. “I just kept driving and driving and driving, not knowing where to go and what to do. I stayed in a hotel for three days, just sitting on the bed — just blank, blank, blank.”
It’s this kind of progress that Hicks is making with her therapist that Curtin says is a real solution. The Salvation Army has hired more clinicians — as opposed to just case managers — who can address the issues of psychological trauma, but they still have a ways to go, Curtin says.
“We need money. If we had the money, I could get more clinicians in here,” she says of the Naomi House. “If we don’t have clinicians to meet with women, we’re just cycling. If Obama is serious about ending homelessness, then programs need funding.”
Even Hicks, who prides herself in being a rock, agrees that dealing with all of her trauma is not something she can do on her own.
“When I realized I lost everything, I was shocked,” she says. “I’ve been shocked before because of what I’ve seen in my work, but then you have adrenaline. This was different; it was just me and my emotions.”
This article is part of AOL and Huffington Post’s Military Families Week series, an effort to put a spotlight on the issues affecting the lives of America’s families who serve. Find more at jobs.aol.com/militaryfamilies and aol.com.