Story and photos by SARAH CROSBY
LEEDS — A rocky path led veteran Mary Wilson to the doorstep of the Soldier On Women’s Program. “The gift of desperation,” she calls it.
A former U.S. Marine Corps private, Wilson in July moved into the transitional housing program located on the grounds of the VA medical center. After years of struggle, she says, she finally feels like she has a base on which to build a life.
“It’s hard to ask for help, but yet Soldier On is an environment where, honestly, I can ask for help and not feel weak doing it,” she said. “I’m treated like a human being here. I’m not a number filling a bed.”
Soldier On is a private nonprofit organization focused on ending homelessness among veterans. The group has been offering services to all veterans — including women — since 1994. But in more recent years, they have emphasized programming that caters specifically to the needs of female veterans.
For those veterans, the 16-bedroom house provides a place to heal from wounds inflicted not just by the nation’s enemies but, too often, by fellow soldiers. Surrounded by a caring staff and female veterans carrying similar scars, Wilson and others begin to find their way.
A dream shattered
Wilson, a spunky 29-year-old most recently donning neon blue hair, joined the Marine Corps when she was 20 and celebrated her 21st birthday in military training. As demanding as it was, she felt like she’d found her niche.
She joined to escape “a life that was going nowhere,” said Wilson, who grew up in East Longmeadow. Stuck in a post-high school rut, she found herself experimenting with cocaine and involved in a relationship that was mutually abusive.
“I figured that if I was going to get my ass kicked, I might as well get paid for it,” she said of her choice to enlist. At first, she struggled to get clean in order to qualify but was eventually able to do so.
In the Marines, Wilson found the mental and physical challenges she had been looking for. Her squadron, which was based at Cherry Point, N.C. but sometimes deployed to Arizona, was responsible for loading and unloading bombs from jets.
“For once in my life, I had to study,” she said. “It wasn’t just ‘Things blow up and go boom.’ There’s actually a math and a science; a rhyme and a reason to everything,” Wilson said.
But less than two years later, that new-found promise was cut short.
Wilson says she was sexually assaulted by a male superior in the Marines, after experiencing what she described as endless “sick, graphic and mean” communications — text messages, voicemails and emails.
“There were red flags ahead of time” she said in an interview, her eyes growing hollow.
Her boss would sometimes cut her shifts short, insist on buying her drinks at military outings and walk her back to her barracks alone.
Wilson said she knew something was wrong, but didn’t press the issue because she didn’t want to upset him and, consequently, jeopardize her career.
“He has a crush on me, it isn’t going to go anywhere,” she told herself. But then the officer began sending everyone else home early so he and Wilson would be left alone.
“One night he wanted yes, I wanted no, and that was the first time,” she said of the first time she was raped. Wilson said the assault occurred two more times over the course of a month.
By the last time, Wilson couldn’t look at herself. She decided to run.
“I got in my car and I drove. And I just drove and I drove and I drove — (11-plus hours) straight back to Massachusetts,” she said. After roughly 20 days, she decided to return and face the situation.
When she arrived, she couldn’t bring herself to drive onto the Cherry Point base.
“I must have circled 100 times,” Wilson recalled. When the questions came about where she’d been, she turned over her phone, with all the messages, to management.
Rather than providing support, Wilson said, her fellow Marines called her a “lying b****,” for “disrespecting and disgracing a decorated Marine with a family.”
That began her discharge process.
The Judge Advocate General’s Corps made a deal with Wilson that, if she testified against her assaulter, they’d make sure her record showed a general discharge under honorable conditions.
She accepted. But the troubles didn’t end.
Wilson said some of her peers, whom she had previously considered friends, stopped talking to her. For the next several months, she was instructed to sit on a chair outside her ordnance shop during working hours.
Wilson was eventually discharged, but had to return to testify at a court martial on her birthday – Feb. 15, 2011. She found a death threat on her car and listened as some of her friends testified against her, she recalled.
Still, the man who had assaulted her was found guilty, she said.
When Wilson returned to Massachusetts following court, she says, she lost it.
She tried therapy, but couldn’t bring herself to talk about the traumatic experience. Instead, she turned back to drugs — this time, “grabbing onto it with everything,” she said.
“If I didn’t have drugs, I probably would have killed myself,” she said.
Wilson found herself in a downward spiral. She developed a heavy Percocet habit; sometimes turning an entire $2,000 paycheck in one day to purchase the drug.
She asked her parents for help and began signing over her paychecks to them to curb her spending. When they thwarted her attempts to buy drugs, she said she began “stealing anything that wasn’t bolted down in their house.”
As the months passed, Wilson found herself in a serious car accident involving alcohol, addicted to heroin, and smuggling guns for gang members.
“Anything I could make money on, I did,” she said.
Her father, concerned for his daughter’s well-being, used a Massachusetts law known as Section 35 to have her involuntarily committed. Section 35 “permits the courts to involuntarily commit someone whose alcohol or drug use puts themselves or others at risk,” according to Mass.Gov.
The first time she was picked up by authorities in East Longmeadow and sent to a treatment facility for 20-plus days. Wilson was released, and began using heroin that same day. Her father filed for her to be committed, again.
The second time Wilson was hospitalized, she said she was facing warrants for drug-fueled behavior such as receiving stolen property, check fraud and breaking and entering. She agreed to go to a halfway house in Springfield to avoid jail time — but, after a month, left the program.
The scenario played out again and again, worsening each time.
She was living in a tent, having violated probation, when she was arrested and sent to the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee in 2014. She served multiple stints of jail time there during the next year, exchanging some time for inpatient treatment and, each time she was released, failing to check in with a probation officer.
Sara Scoco, the director of the women’s program at Soldier On, visited Wilson in jail at the plea of her father.
“She told me to f*** off,” Scoco said. Wilson said she told Scoco to save the bed for somebody who wanted it.
Finding safe haven
The Soldier On Women’s Program is a complex operation focused on giving female veterans back their sense of control.
Scoco said veteran women are four times more likely to become homeless due to challenges faced in accessing services, a tendency to isolate themselves and, often dealing with the aftermath of sexual trauma.
“The VA is an extremely male-dominated arena,” she said. “It’s often assumed when a woman walks in that she’s the sister of, the wife of, the daughter of a veteran. Not the veteran herself. That’s unacceptable and we need to change that.”
Soldier On seeks to fill this gap for female veterans through a variety of programming, such as one-on-one meetings with clinicians and social workers, goal-setting and self esteem groups, employment and educational opportunities, alcohol and substance abuse programs and wellness, fitness and art therapy classes.
Scoco estimates roughly 80 percent of the house residents have experienced military sexual trauma and have not been able to address that until arriving at the Soldier On Women’s Program, which is run by a female staff.
Assisting the women in making connections to their communities outside Soldier On is also of big emphasis for the staff.
“We’re helping to link them to all the services they might not have known existed,”Scoco said, adding that many veterans are not VA-eligible when they arrive but are when they leave. “The ultimate goal is getting them back into the community, and what that looks like is different for everyone.”
But in order for the program to be successful, Scoco said, the women must be ready to make a change.
Ready to rebuild
After two years of running from the law, Wilson decided she was ready to make that change.
In the winter of 2016 she was prostituting herself and living with a client, when she decided to turn herself in to authorities.
“I was just so sick of living, feeling dirty every day and the things I had to do,” she said.
Her sister had reached out around that time with a request to cook Wilson dinner — in her own home — as a celebration of her birthday.
The gesture came at a time when Wilson had come to feel that no one trusted her. It had a deep impact on her, she said.
“I just kept hearing ‘stop running, stop running,’” Wilson said of that day. “Even in receipts and newspapers, I couldn’t see any words besides ‘stop running.’”
She called her father on a Friday and promised to turn herself in that Monday, if he’d come pick her up. He did.
That weekend, father and daughter both met with Soldier On. Wilson planned to request parole so she could move to the transitional housing program after a year in jail.
But while awaiting trial in the Chicopee jail, Wilson was offered an alternative to incarceration.
The Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court, a specialty court based in Holyoke, offered her 18 months of active participation in conjunction with recovery at Soldier On, instead of serving her time in a jail cell.
“It’s really more about building them up than it is penalizing them,” said Scoco of the treatment court.
After just four months of jail time and a few months of inpatient recovery, Wilson moved into her new home at Soldier On.
During a recent visit to veterans court, Wilson took the stand and spoke of her recovery process to the judge and other participants. Tears filled her eyes.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” she said, citing the nine-plus months she’s been sober and clean.
“For the first time in her life, something’s clicking,” Scoco said of Wilson’s success in a later interview. “Something’s working.”
While most veterans stay at Soldier On for one to two years, some women there need longer-term support, Scoco said.
LouAnn Hazelwood, 61, has lived there off and on since 2012. Soldier On offered her a place to belong after she left an abusive marriage of nearly two decades.
Hazelwood, a U.S. Army veteran who enlisted in 1976, says she suffered sexual trauma both in and out of the military.
At 21, she saw the military as a way to escape what she called “a very dysfunctional household.”
“I used to ride my bike around the Holiday Inn, looking at all the different license plates and thinking about what it would be like to go (to them),” she said.
But she did not find that safe place with the Army. When she arrived at Soldier On decades later, Hazelwood did not even speak. She was full of fear from her traumatic past.
“There was a time I didn’t even feel comfortable in my own skin,” she said.
But, Hazelwood adds, “I don’t feel that way, anymore.”
She, too, has flourished with the program.
Hazelwood now sings in a local church choir, crochets pieces for her housemates and community members, volunteers and makes paintings — many of which have been showcased at regional organizations.
Scoco and Hazelwood agree that, in order to continue doing well, she will always need some kind of structure in her life. To solve this issue for her, and others, Soldier On is in the initial stages of planning eight to 10 units of permanent housing for female veterans, to be located in Pittsfield.
“Some women go out into the community and, in six or eight months, they’re relapsing,” Scoco said. “Right now, (the long-term housing) is the missing piece.”
A happy surprise
Wilson and her peers, including Hazelwood, will soon embark on a new journey together — on a path not yet forged by Soldier On. In approximately six months, the house will welcome Wilson’s newborn child, their youngest resident by far.
The pregnancy came as a surprise to both Wilson and the house members.
At first, she was scared and questioned her suitability to become a parent. But the more she sat with the idea, it seemed to her that there might be a reason she was pregnant.
“Once I heard the baby’s heartbeat, for the first time, it was ‘game on,’” she said. The child’s father is also a veteran.
So far, Wilson’s pregnancy has only motivated her further to work on her recovery.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “If I mess up, it’s going to affect this kid.”
Scoco said that, although Soldier On has never taken on a new baby, she’s thrilled to offer Wilson support when she needs it most.
“It’s probably not the best time in the world for her to be pregnant, but she is,” Scoco said. “So we’re going to help her deal with it.”
Wilson’s housemates have also rallied to celebrate the new life growing inside her. Scoco is confident that the women in the house will make a positive impact on the baby.
“The hurt they’ve been through runs so deep that they can just nurture and support one another like I’ve never seen before,” she said.
In several weeks, the ladies will be throwing a gender party to reveal the baby’s sex to the expecting mother.
“There’s a sisterhood here that is nowhere else,” Wilson said.
But the staff are the ones who make recovery possible, according to her.
“They jump through hoopsof fire, for me,” she said of Scoco and wellness director Stephanie Ovitt. “They move mountains. My dream is just a dream without them.”
Sarah Crosby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.