As an Army trailblazer in the late 1970s, Linda Jones was one of the first women soldiers to train with men at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. She loved the challenge and pride she experienced in the military, and felt safe alongside her male counterparts.
That sense of safety was shattered in 1979 when Linda was sexually assaulted by a male soldier.
More than three decades of self-isolation, addiction and bouts of homelessness would follow. Linda felt lost, blaming herself for the assault and failing to identify as a veteran.
That would change in 2012 when Linda's trauma was diagnosed and she started getting the help she needed. She also discovered her passion for writing and performing spoken word - a creative outlet she now uses to help other women veterans heal. One of her spoken-word pieces is titled "When the Women Speak" and reads, in part:
Oh I tell you it's a thing of beauty when the women speak!
We are every hue of a rainbow of life experiences. Our bodies bearing scars and bearing witness to the many battles we have won to find our way here to this place where this divine soul work is done! Where we transform and we BECOME!
The process can be horrifically beautiful like the death battle of caterpillar turning to butterfly. But we are here and we gratefully bear witness to the change…
And it binds our voices in a holy harmony that not all will have the grace to hear. This "sister song" we sing so clear!
"It's not for everybody," Linda says, "but I found that performing arts is a very wonderful way for female veterans to express themselves, or even to hear someone else to express what they're feeling."
"There's so many of us that have lived," she adds. "And we're not just surviving - we're thriving."
Linda, now 60, grew up in Gary, Indiana. By the time she was a junior in high school, she knew college wasn't for her - she needed something different. She would find that something the day an Army recruiter visited her school.
She took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test without her mom knowing. Only 17 at the time, she wasn't old enough to enlist on her own, so she took her high test scores to her mother.
"This is meant to be," Linda recalls saying. "I'm meant to be in the Army."
After much hesitation, her mother signed the papers and Linda left for basic training in August 1978, knowing that her mother was silently very proud.
Basic training challenged her physically, and she learned new skills, met some amazing people and loved being a part of military cadences - marching and proudly shouting back to the drill instructors. Eventually she even became a cadence-caller herself.
Graduating from basic training was one of the proudest moments of her young life.
"Little did I know that years later I would look at my time in the service much differently," Linda says.
Linda trained to become a behavioral science specialist and a combat medic. Serving from 1978 to 1982, she was part of one of the first groups of women to train coed at Fort Jackson. Linda found it somewhat challenging, yet the experiences with her male counterparts were mostly positive.
As an only child, Linda felt like many of the men she served with were the brothers she never had. Initially, she felt safe when they were around, but that feeling ended when she was raped by a fellow soldier while stationed in Aschaffenburg, Germany.
It was 1979 and Linda was with other soldiers drinking and hanging out like they often did while off duty. She ended up with a man who she said didn't respect her boundaries and took advantage of her.
After the incident, she went to the clinic on base and reported the assault, but nothing ever happened. Linda isolated herself for a long time. She tried to cope with the pain of her trauma with substances, food and other relationships.
"For a long time, I blamed myself," she says. "And I learned, that even though I made some bad decisions, the bad things that happened, I didn't deserve them."
Linda tried to bury the memories of her trauma. After being discharged from the military in 1982, she returned to the United States, but found transitioning to civilian life difficult. None of her family or friends understood military life and she felt alone. For a while she was homeless and got by couch surfing and staying with family. It was easy for Linda to get jobs, but she struggled to keep them because of chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
About six months before Linda was discharged, she had married another soldier. To try and deal with her difficult transition, one of her only coping mechanisms was calling her husband overseas as she waited for him to join her.
When he returned, she started traveling with him as a dependent. They had three sons together, but their marriage ended in 1987. After their separation, Linda lived in Baltimore with their three sons until 1993 when she moved to Detroit. She's been there since.
Linda's trauma affected every area of her civilian life. She dealt with addiction, homelessness and domestic violence. Setbacks were common and she couldn't understand why. Military sexual trauma wasn't talked about in 1979, so Linda had never even heard of it, let alone know she was suffering from it.
Over the years, Linda held various high-level jobs. As many of them were in public service, such as her job as a research librarian, she said she focused on other people instead of her own issues. Then, in 2012, after losing her job and finding herself homeless again, she was forced to finally look inward.
Thirty-three years after her sexual assault, Linda's trauma was finally diagnosed and she started getting the help that she needed. She began treatment with the mental health staff at the Detroit VA and found a community of women who gathered around her.
In 2013, after going through therapy for military sexual trauma, she qualified for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program. Linda stayed in transitional housing with other women veterans as a VA case manager worked with her to find and sustain permanent housing.
Before she started dealing with her trauma, Linda didn't identify as a veteran, introduce herself as one or even connect with the veterans she saw on TV. As she started her journey of healing, she started seeing all the strong women around her.
"It was like yeah, I'm a female veteran! I'm a female veteran," she says. "And the more I said it, the more I loved it, and the more I realized it's a source of pride and not a source of shame."
Linda fell back in love with herself and her kids. Her three sons - Jesse, 33, Brandon, 35, and Myles, 37 - all live in the Detroit area and work in the automotive and insurance industries. She has six grandchildren, four boys and two girls, who she enjoys spending time with as well.
Linda also rediscovered her joy for music, and found her passion for writing, speaking and performing spoken word. She digs into her love of the creative arts daily to heal and to help other women veterans heal through the sharing of her story. She considers it her mission to bring more performing arts-based healing to women veterans.
Linda has spoken to many women veterans, especially during her stay in transitional housing, and learned that many feel isolated. She sees a need for more outreach and housing - and for women who have been traumatized by their service, better accessibility to care and resources that are located in comfortable safe spaces outside of a VA hospital.
"There's someone now, a female veteran sitting somewhere feeling like she's completely alone, Linda says. "And that's not the truth anymore. We just need to let her know, we need to get her out of there and bring her into the healing."
As she concludes in "When the Women Speak":
I hear them. I hear me. I hear. I am able to hear a concert of courage that falls into my ears, moves through my mind and my body and pierces my soul
Creating a space for that sister song.
And I proudly sing along!
Cause when "you" sisters speak it's like a song!
Do you see yourself or your military experiences in Linda? Reach out to other women of the military and encourage them through your story to get a benefits checkup or connect with other veteran service organizations or women's groups.
If you're a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention 24/7/365. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
Women veterans, their families, and caregivers can call or text the VA Women Veterans Call Center with their questions or concerns at 1-855-829-6636, or chat online at www.womenshealth.va.gov/ProgramOverview/wvcc.asp. The Call Center is available Monday through Friday 8 a.m. - 10 p.m. ET and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. ET.