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Enlisted to Enrolled

A student veteran tells the story of her transition to civilian life after suffering discrimination, assault and post-traumatic stress disorder

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Tonia Nixon, a U.S. Army veteran, is also a student at Georgia State pursuing a Master’s of Social Work degree so she can assist homeless and female veterans. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JADE JOHNSON | THE SIGNAL

 

Tonia Nixon said her transition from serving in the U.S. Army to civilian life as a student has been a journey of adversity, revelation and determination. However, discrimination, abuse and a battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were not experiences she expected to gain along the way.

Nixon served in the Army as a medic for 16 years then moved on to becoming a student to obtain her Masters of Social Work degree at Georgia State.

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Nixon knew at a young age she desired to join the armed services and said she believed it was a way to escape an impoverished life.

“I came from the projects and life wasn’t really the greatest. My mother was a drug addict and I grew up pretty much trying to fend for myself and my little brother,” she said. “The military could get me out of Baltimore and help with the rest.”

She also said she was eager to enlist and sought a military branch offering her the quickest chance to leave.

“I got accepted to the Army and the Marines,” she said. “I didn’t care how I got out of there as long as I got out, but the Army gave me an earlier entry date. I was ready to go.”

At 16, Nixon convinced her grandmother to co-sign her enlistment, and she finished high school a year later.

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“My recruiter was waiting for me when I came off the graduation stage, and I went right into boot camp,” she said.

Discrimination and assault

While she was enlisted, Nixon got married and started a family. However, she said for someone that longed to serve in the military the experiences were bittersweet.

“I appreciate the discipline. I appreciate some of the personalities and the attitudes. I do not appreciate the discrimination that you face as a woman.”

Nixon said women are less likely to make rank compared to men with less seniority, must achieve higher test scores, and don’t receive combat pay for going overseas.

The overall treatment of women in the armed services is abhorrent, according to Nixon.

“The men will tell you that the only reason you need to be there is for them. I had a first sergeant that told me he had two balls and a bat for me.”

The treatment of women did not stop at offensive speech, according to Nixon.

“Women are constantly assaulted,” she said.

Combat wasn’t the only thing Nixon said she saw when she was stationed overseas in Afghanistan. During her deployment she was sexually assaulted by her superior officer.

Nixon was stuck repeatedly in the face during the assault, severing nerves, which resulted in severe bilateral neuropathy. She credits this assault to being the most significant factor in her development of PTSD.

“I started having dreams and nightmares about it,” she said. “I have issues with sleep. I have to take a sleeping pill and I take a dream suppressant to keep me from dreaming about it even now. I take anxiety pills to deal with anxiety. I also take medication for the neuropathy.”

Nixon said she suffered further discrimination after reporting the incident to the Inspector General’s Office (IG).

“The assault put me through a lot, and even with that I got in trouble and got an article 15 for hitting my first sergeant to get him off of me because I hit a commanding officer,” she said. “They did nothing to him.”

Nixon also said the majority of the troops she served with shunned her for filing the complaint against the first sergeant and they also accused her of trying to get him in trouble unjustly.

“It caused a lot of isolation for me in my unit,” she said. “Although there were other women in the battalion, there were very few. So I tended to hang only with one particular comrade who had gone through the same thing with him [the first sergeant] but chose not to say anything because she saw how people ostracized you from watching another soldier go through it.”

Nixon said she suffered emotionally having to serve under the man who attacked her and applied to transfer to another unit.

“I tried to get swapped out of the unit and he refused to allow me to. [He] denied my swap,” she said. “I came out having difficulty working with men because I was very angry, very disgruntled.”

After 16 years in the Army, Nixon decided it was time to return to civilian life. She declined the next offer to renew her enlistment.

“I was already stressed. I found myself crying all the time. I was in and out of sick call with upset stomachs from stress, and it was time to go. Then my children needed me.”

Living with PTSD

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Tonia Nixon conducts a planning meeting for an upcoming community awareness event in the university library. PHOTO BY MATTHEW WOLFF | THE SIGNAL

Adjusting to civilian life was not easy for Nixon. She continued suffering from PTSD

“When I came back I was really depressed. I was hurt; I was angry because I couldn’t understand how you could be treated so horribly in a governmental organization as a woman and devalued.”

Her conditions put immense strain on her relationship with her husband.

“He didn’t understand a lot of stuff. I could not talk to him about certain things. He certainly didn’t understand the PTSD and waking up at night screaming. So we divorced.”

To Nixon it seemed her life was spiralling downward.

“I had no support from family whatsoever at that time and so it was very difficult for me.”

Unable to find work, suffering from PTSD and feeling a lack of support from family, Nixon said she began to consider taking her own life.

“I got to a point where I just didn’t want to be here. That’s one of the lowest points of my life,” she said. “So I took a bottle of sleeping pills, and I know a lot of people don’t believe in miracles, but I do because they were actually in the process of writing my death certificate when I started vomiting up what they pumped in my stomach.”

At the lowest point in her life, Nixon said she found the inspiration to live from a high school friend who came to visit her in the hospital. Her friend was able to convince her that she wasn’t meant to die and that she still had something to offer to others.

Treatment and the VA

Nixon said she still regularly attends counselling and takes a variety of medications for her conditions.

“I go through cognitive behavioral therapy, and I do counseling sessions weekly,” she said. “I take antidepressants, anxiety meds, sleeping pills of course, and of course all my pain meds for the neuropathy,” she said.

This regimen is necessary for her ongoing well being, according to Nixon.

“They actually have helped me make it through. I don’t know that I could have done anything without the medication. They help me function,” she said. “I still have some things that struggle with but it’s a matter of will power and the fact that I look at myself as being more than just a veteran with PTSD.”

She also said seeking help from the VA for her conditions is constantly difficult because of missing paperwork or that some simply don’t care.

“They will send your paperwork back telling you they have no noted documentation through the military records to show what you’re saying,” Nixon said. “But because I was in a medical unit, I took copies of my records with me so I was able to copy and highlight and send it back to them and tell them, ‘You’re full of crap.’”

Back to school

Nixon said the tragedies and frustrations she has suffered directly influenced her decision to enroll in school. She knew undoubtedly she wanted to help veterans that had the same feelings as her and decided to pursue a degree in social work.

“They were deliberately lying to keep from doing what they needed to do. It made me angry and it made me decide someone had to stand up to them. And so that was what led me back to school into the social work field,” Nixon said.

Nixon also said  the PTSD made her nervous about enrolling.

“It took me a while to go back to school because I don’t like crowds. I have major issues with crowds,” she said. “I get really anxious and so I had to go through some therapy. I also still have a problem with being around a lot of men.”

However, Nixon did enroll and began her education at Georgia Perimeter College (GPC) in 2009.

Nixon said it was not an easy transition into the college experience. The staff at GPC was not supportive of her as a student veteran with PTSD, according to Nixon.

“I left Georgia Perimeter without doing the associates in social work because of some of the feedback I got back from some of the staff,” she said. “I have to have accommodations because I have concentration issues from the PTSD and so … one of the professors told me if I had to have accommodations then maybe I shouldn’t be in college.”

Nixon decided their accommodations were unacceptable and transferred to Georgia State in 2011. She was prepared to encounter a similar mindset but found that the professors in the social work program at Georgia State were welcoming and understanding.

“The staff here at Georgia State has been a great support system,” she said. “They are social workers so they understand the concept of how the social environment can play on a person’s life, and so they have always been supportive.”

Despite doubting herself, Nixon said she has excelled at Georgia State. She is the recipient of the Wanda C. Caldwell Award and Chris Penn Memorial Scholarship. Nixon has also been a two-time recipient of the Service Award through the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. She is also the president of the Phi Alpha Society, an organization for high-achieving students within the school of social work.

Nixon graduated Magna Cum Laude with her Bachelor’s of Social Work from Georgia State in 2014 and will graduate with her master’s this semester. She intends to pursue a doctorate in social work, a degree not offered by Georgia State.

Resources for Georgia State student veterans

There are currently over 800 student veterans enrolled at Georgia State. They may have served their country, but they all come from a variety of backgrounds.

Mary McLaughlin, former social worker and member of the Military Outreach Committee at Georgia State, said the committee and the Students Veterans Association (SVA) are dedicated to making Georgia State more accessible for veterans and streamlining the process for student veterans to earn a degree.

McLaughlin said the university assists veterans who need books when VA payments haven’t come in. The university also works with them in the career counseling center to identify jobs in veteran-friendly businesses and help them locate counselors and mentors.

“If they want help, they want a clear road of where to get it,” McLaughlin said.

In addition to these services Georgia State also offers priority registration to student veterans.
It’s important for the university to provide student veterans with the proper structure in order for them to earn a degree with the least amount of roadblocks, according to McLaughlin.

“The GI bill is time stamped so it’s really important for them to stay on track,” she said. “We want all students to progress through in a timely manner but for them it’s crucial.”

McLaughlin also said the most important thing to understand is that all veterans are different and have had differents experiences.

“Get to know them like you would get to know anybody else. They don’t like to be labeled in any direction,” she said.

The VA offers the Post-9/11 GI Bill paying for the tuition and fees of veterans to attend a public education institution. Over 750,000 veterans benefited from $10 billion paid toward education by the GI Bill in 2013 and nearly 27,000 of those veteran attended school within the University System of Georgia (USG), according to an annual report.

Georgia State also participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program that covers additional educational costs not covered by the GI Bill.

The university offers additional veteran services to students such as Mental Health Services and the veteran’s legal center.

Moving forward

Nixon said she intends on helping homeless veterans, particularly women, with her degrees in social work.

She also said she is using her ongoing frustrating experience with the VA and her education in social work to help veterans navigate a system she views as broken.

“That’s a problem for me because a lot of our veterans are extremely experienced and can’t get jobs. When they end up homeless, their families end up homeless, but society looks at them as nothing,” Nixon said. “These are the same people that fought for you to make sure you were safe.”

Nixon also received her certificate as a real estate broker to help her in what she said is her ultimate goal. She said she is working to start a transitional living program for veterans.

“My biggest goal as a social worker is to make the VA’s life a living hell.”

The objective is to find private funding to buy bank foreclosed homes and rehab them to be lived in by veterans and their families, according to Nixon.

“We’re looking for grant money that’s outside governmental because we don’t want you to tell us what to do with it,” she said.

Nixon also said it is important to educate the families of veterans returning with PTSD.

“PTSD doesn’t just affect the veteran. It affects everyone around, everyone they’re involved with and so we need to educate families about PTSD,” she said. “We need to educate them on how to deal with their family members that are going through it and learn how to accept them for who they are.”

Today Nixon describes herself as someone determined to make a difference in the lives of veterans that have dealt with hardships similar to her own.

“I am a motivated business-owner empowered to empower others, resilient and more than a conqueror. I aim to increase the value of others lives so that they can feel the same way about themselves.”

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