Serving in the military has always been a dream for me. Something that I always wanted to do was fight for my country. I wanted to do something that would leave a mark.
I served in the Army for eight years. When I first enlisted, it was my junior year of high school. I enlisted to go into the Marine Corps at first, both me and my high school boyfriend at the time, through the buddy program. After graduation, we went to boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina for the Marines, because that was the branch I wanted to be in at first. However, when we separated, I got out of the Marines and I joined the Army and went to boot camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
From there, my first duty station was in Watertown, New York at Fort Drum. I stayed a year at Fort Drum and then I came down on assignment for Vilseck, Germany. I went to Germany and stayed there for three and a half years. Then I got stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
While I was stationed at Fort Stewart, a superior of mine started to talk to me and touch on me inappropriately. He was my immediate supervisor and the 1SGT for the company. He would touch on me and say things like, “If you don't let me do this, and you don't let me do that, you won't ever get promoted because I am the one who writes your evaluations.”
So, we deployed to Iraq in 2013, in support of Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. While we were deployed, I was the Sergeant in charge of all female soldiers. One night, we were all sitting around having a conversation when they admitted to me that he had been doing those same things to them. They were like, “Oh, we just knew he was going to get you, too.”
And honestly after it happened, I was going to keep it to myself and not report it. I was embarrassed and I felt guilty, like it was my fault.
But when I heard my soldiers say that it upset me. After that, I felt like that was the right time to go and report this to the Company Commander. So, myself and my female soldiers reported it.
We were in a war zone, so they sent him back to Fort Stewart and forced him to retire. But still, the damage was already done at that point. We still all communicate about it today because it's something that we all share and still deal with years later.
Honestly, it was my plan to make the military my career. So, I feel like he robbed me of my career after that. Because it was time for me to decide if I was going to reenlist again or get out, so I decided to get out, because I didn't want to have to go through that anymore. My trust was broken! That was the reason I ended what should have been my career.
When it first happened, it was something new to me. I had never heard of this happening in the military. So, knowing what I know now, versus what I knew then, I don't feel like they did enough in terms of discipline. I feel like he got a slap on the wrist. He was able to retire. His military service record, or DD214, is going to say ‘honorable discharge’ still. He’s done this to multiple people and who knows how many people came before or ever after us.
Now, I participate in townhall meetings with multiple Veterans and people who are in higher positions at the VA. They're taking it far more serious now, but this is like almost 20 years later.
I'm glad to see that now they're taking it seriously, because it's actually happening more, which I was kind of surprised by. And actually, it happens to men just as much as it happens to women.
PTSD and MST
After serving in Iraq and returning home, I was later diagnosed with PTSD. When I got out, I didn’t know what my diagnosis was right away. I just chalked it up to getting out and settling back into civilian life. But I was having nightmares and it wasn’t until my doctor asked me several questions about different things that I told her some of the things I was experiencing. She told me, “No, I think you need to see someone in our mental health department and get help for what I think is PTSD.” Now, I’ve been in therapy for about five years.
Even now, when I drive, I have to be really careful, because when I see something in the road, even if it is just trash or something, I think maybe there's a roadside bomb in there. That was how they blew up U.S vehicles in Iraqi. They would have trach such as Pepsi cans, MRE bags, and just and trash lying in the road so that when it is ran over the vehicle explodes.
I tell myself all the time, ‘Monica, you're in Saginaw. You don't have to worry about roadside bombs anymore. You're not in Iraq.’
Sounds easy but it's not! I still cannot run over anything in the road. I sometimes hold up traffic, whatever it takes. I'm not running over anything in the road. I am currently in therapy for it. It is one of my biggest challenges right now. I don't think I'll ever be able to run over anything in the road, but I am working on that with my therapist currently.
Then I also deal with the MST (Military Sexual Trauma) from the situation with my superior. Both MST and PTSD have drastically changed my life. It's hard for me to have good, adequate relationships because of the MST.
I see his (my superior) face in numerous places, even in commercials on TV. It’s just his face that appears to me and he has a smirk that I will never forget. It makes it hard for me to be intimate with anybody because of the things that he did to me. I don't feel like as an adult, I can be in a meaningful relationship, because I have this PTSD and MST diagnosis. I don't know if anybody will understand my story if I were to tell this to somebody that I'm in a relationship with. So, that hinders me from having long-term relationships, because when I feel I'm getting close to somebody, I start shutting down because I don't want to have to share those negative experiences. I haven't shared any of these things with my family. I've only shared with my therapist and two of my friends.
Moving forward, I'm now a civilian and I never really understood mental illness growing up. That wasn't something we discussed in my household growing up black with parents that do not even have high school diplomas and in the city of Saginaw. We didn't discuss those things as kids, our parents were not even knowledgeable about mental illnesses and its causes. If we displayed certain behaviors, we were just labeled as being “bad” by family members.
Now that I work in the mental health field, I totally understand the complexity of this. I'm a Client Service Manager at Saginaw Community Mental Health Authority and I am more knowledgeable about mental illnesses and all the things that can accompany something like this.
Inspiring a career change
What I went through definitely inspired me to get into this career field. When I got out of the military, I wanted to go to school to be a teacher. I actually did that, and I taught for two years, but I just felt like that wasn’t where I was supposed to be. So, then I started working at a juvenile facility and although I enjoyed helping the youth there, I still had the same feeling. Then, I decided to go to back to school to get a degree in a field that I was passionate about, so I received my bachelor’s degree in Human Services Management because I wanted to help other people that went through what I went through.
We do have a Veteran Service Representative here at CMH, but I asked my supervisor that if we get any Veteran consumers, if she could put them on my caseload, because I really have a passion to help Veterans. I feel like some of the things that Veterans go through, civilians don't always understand. So, getting help and having it come from a fellow Veteran, would be a good match.
I finally felt like I was working in a field that was my calling when I was at Health Source – White Pine. It was there that I felt like my work with people with mental illnesses was my calling. But because of COVID-19 and financial cutbacks, my position there was eliminated. That's what made me think that I should reach out to CMH, because when I was working over at White Pine, we did a lot of work with the staff here at CMH. Many of the White Pine patients were also Community Mental Health consumers. So, I inquired about open positions and applied, and I was excited when I got the call for an interview but even more excited when I got that call saying, “We would like to offer you the Client Service Manager position.”
I’ve only been here for a little over 2 months, but I do feel like I am doing something meaningful and helpful to so many consumers in my community. I feel like I can really help with the stigma of mental health.
The importance of getting help
My advice for any Veteran dealing with anything like this, would be for them to most definitely go to VA as soon as you are released from the military. There are so many programs designed to help Veterans. Whenever I see people out, or hear of people who even know a Veteran, I automatically ask if I can talk to them. I want to make sure they know about the medical and mental health support that is available to them through the VA. I find myself like trying to actively find Veterans to share this information with, because it's really important they go to the VA when they get out.
Most people (Veterans and civilians) don’t know they need these services as so many people are not knowledgeable about the reality of mental illness. I plan to spread the word to as many people as I can reach.
– Monica Burton, BSHS/M | Client Service Manager, CSS1
Saginaw County Community Mental Health Authority