Deborah Custis joined the U.S. Army in 1986 to flee an abusive childhood.
The then-22-year-old was attracted to the order and structure the service provided compared to what her often-chaotic life had been. The military helped restore meaning and purpose to her days.
“I loved it,” she says proudly of her time in the armed services.
“I went into the military to escape an abusive background,” she tells Milieu, oftentimes glancing down at her hands while struggling to compose herself. “I’m a survivor of child molestation.”
Sitting at a roundtable in the makeshift office of nonprofit Services for the UnderServed (SUS), attached to the St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Farmingdale (since relocated to Amityville), her emotions shift between a tearful recounting of her childhood experience and the fierce resolve of someone who has been through hell and lived to tell the tale.
Custis, a formidable woman with deep, chocolate-brown eyes, says her affection for the military quickly soured, however, when she was raped by her commanding officer. Adding insult to brutal injury, that very same superior then promoted her—a concession that did little to quell the trauma of the sex attack.
“From that point, I didn’t care,” she confides. “So I basically got kicked out of the military, but I came out under honorable conditions.”
Custis soon found herself in the throes of yet another battle, one which she says is being waged against veterans across the country: a flawed, almost nonexistent post-service assistance system that leads too many returning servicemen and women to homelessness, substance abuse and/or suicide.
“When you’re discharged, they don’t tell you anything,” laments Custis, now 50. “You don’t know what you’re entitled to. So I just wandered around, living with family, drinking and drugging because I couldn’t adapt to civilian life.”
Custis is just one of approximately 5,500 homeless veterans living on Long Island, according to an exploratory committee of the nonprofit Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island (VHALI), a project of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County and collaborative effort of vets, their families and vet-related service providers. Of those veterans, women vets have a 3.6 times greater chance of homelessness than their male counterparts, according to VHALI. Women comprise about 15 percent of the current U.S. Armed Forces and 11 percent of the soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2020, an estimated 20 percent of veterans under the age of 45 will be women, the group says.
Women in the military face a unique set of challenges, and the drawbacks of this still male-dominated institution can be daunting. A 2008 House panel investigating military sexual assaults found that 40 percent of female veterans reported the incidents, and 71-90 percent reported being sexually harassed.
Inadequate resources and an unsupportive culture all contribute to the prevalence of homeless female veterans, according to the nonprofit National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Miscommunication between military organizations and the veterans, the lack of a military base here on Long Island, drug addiction, alcoholism and undiagnosed mental health issues are also contributing factors, says the VHALI.
SUS has been working to tackle this problem, one veteran at a time. Partially funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), SUS offers support services for veteran families in need, ranging from vocational and rehabilitation counseling, employment and training services to educational assistance, health care services, benefit and housing counseling, among others. For those who qualify, temporary financial assistance is also available.
Simply put: SUS could mean the difference between a veteran making it or not, and administrators are always trying to raise awareness about the program and its myriad benefits for vets. The group hosts programs in more than a dozen communities across LI, providing housing and support services to 550-plus individuals and their families.
“The supportive services are in our title,” says SUS program director Beth Gabellini. “Yes, we’re a housing program, but all those supportive services are going to keep you in housing. What’s the sustainability plan? Can they get to work? What does their resume look like? Do they have childcare? Guess what? We’re going to remove all the barriers for you to be successful, stable, and safe for a long period of time. We bought one vet steel-toed boots because he needed them for work. Our budget allows for that.”
SUS occasionally hires those they are tasked to assist. Custis and fellow veterans Cat Vidal and Martine Nivose—all previous benefactors of the group—now work for the group to help others just like them. Custis’ involvement has restored the sense of purpose she’d lost since her 1989 discharge.
She’s now living in a shelter for women operated by the United Veterans Beacon House, a Bay Shore-based nonprofit that operates 24 housing locations throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties—nine of which are specifically for vets, including one center dedicated to women and another to the frail and the elderly.
“Sometimes it gets frustrating for me because I come in and I work with homeless veterans and I’m still a homeless veteran,” admits Custis, who has a 16-year-old daughter. “I won’t let that stop me because I know my day is coming.
“I come in here and I give 110 percent,” she continues. “If I could see one veteran housed, then my day is complete. If I could help one veteran just to get benefits or to let them know that you could go to the Feinberg center [the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and Their Families in North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital in Bay Shore], or you can go to Northport [VA Medical Center] and see this nurse and they can help you, then my heart is filled.”
“It’s vindication,” adds Vidal.
Petite, with a purple bandana holding back her dark hair, sporting a studded black leather jacket, stretched earlobes and tattoos snaking along her collarbone and up her arms, the 36-year-old Vidal resembles a punk rock version of Rosie the Riveter. Her story bears a striking resemblance to Custis’, including being raped by civilians while in the military and bouts with homelessness and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Following her 1998 discharge, Vidal spent four months living on the streets of Manhattan—a dark period which included being woken up in Union Square by kicks from a female police officer.
“I had bruises all over my legs and stuff from the cop,” she says with a slight Brooklyn accent. “After that, I made sure I stayed in mostly kinder areas—train stations, places like that. I’ll be honest with you: I almost pulled a knife on her because I didn’t know who it was. Had I not seen her boots, I would have been in jail because I carried a knife on me. As soon as she kicked me, I thought I was getting mugged or something so I went for the knife, but then I saw her boots and I was like, ‘Cop!’ So I put the knife away and she didn’t notice. I was just like, ‘I’ll get up and leave!’”
From then on she slept mostly in Atlantic Terminal and Penn Station, where the MTA cops were kinder and gentler. Yet even after securing housing, her PTSD symptoms persisted.
“I was up all night, checking the door 50,000 times thinking someone was breaking in,” she confides. “When I get home, I have to go look through the closet to make sure that there’s nobody in there.
“My husband thought I was going to kill him in the middle of the night because I slept with my bayonet under my pillow,” continues Vidal. “I had guns and knives. I had a Louisville [Slugger] next to my bed. I was out of my mind. He couldn’t sleep because he thought I was going to kill him. He jostled me one time, and I punched him in the face—I couldn’t help it. It’s a reflex.”
Vidal, the mother of a 9-year-old daughter, echoes Custis’ complaints.
“When they send you out into the world, the debriefing is nonexistent,” she says. “They don’t tell you what you’re entitled to. They don’t tell you where to go to fend for help. They pushed me out nine days early, and I lost my GI Bill… Every day you’re trained: ‘Stay alert! Stay alive!’ and how to kill people. And then you’re sent back into society like you’re just supposed to acclimate.
“They don’t do anything to help you with that,” she adds.
Vidal happened upon the Northport VA Medical Center when she believed she had developed lung cancer. It turned out to be a misdiagnosis, but once there, she was able to access much-needed health care. Even then, she asserts, information was disorganized and services difficult for working veterans to utilize because its hours were on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“It was just a stroke of luck that I found [SUS],” she says. “If not, I’d probably still be sleeping on the street.”
Even after she began receiving medical assistance, Vidal explains, VA doctors didn’t diagnose her PTSD until years later, compounding her trauma.
“I just thought I was crazy,” she says—adding her belief that the disorder was fueled, at least in part, by her rape.
“When it happened, I don’t remember it because I was drugged, but I told my sergeant, and he just looked at me and said, ‘It’s your own fault,’” Vidal recalls. “And it’s easier for me to suppress it because I don’t remember it. But when you get out there and you tell them how you feel, and they say, ‘Well, that’s just because you’re stressed’—it wasn’t until I came here that I realized I’m not as messed up as I think I am. I just hadn’t found the right people to talk to.”
Filling out a PTSD-symptom checklist during a first responders’ class at SUS, Vidal recognized that she suffered from the majority of symptoms, leading her to a formal PTSD diagnosis from a therapist.
“It’s almost like someone shines a light,” explains SUS’ program director Gabellini, a social worker who joined SUS last year and has been assisting veterans since 2006. “It’s this epiphany when someone realizes they have PTSD. It’s like the heavens open up, and you think: ‘This is not me. I’m not crazy. There is something wrong with me that I can point to and say this is why.’”
Full of unbridled enthusiasm and known for her warm encouragement and empathetic ear, Gabellini stresses SUS’ mission of bridging the gaps LI’s vets fall through—identifying a haphazard reintegration process as the starting point.
“Once you go home, you don’t hear nothing from nobody,” agrees Martine Nivose, a soft-spoken 33-year-old whose haunting, piercing eyes witnessed the horrors that defined the beginning of the U.S. War on Terror as a participant in the first wave of U.S. airstrikes against Kuwait after Sept. 11, 2001. “That’s it. And now you’re trying to figure out, ‘Where do I go next? How do I get a job? How do I go about getting medical?’”
Nivose says she has seen significant improvement, especially in services offered to women—noting the women’s center now attached to the Northport VA—though she shares the assertion of her coworkers that there’s still much to be done.
“Before, there was nothing,” she says.
“When I first went to the VA, it was 1998,” agrees Custis. “I walked in to be examined and there was a male doctor. And I was like, ‘What are you about to do?’ He said, ‘I’m about to examine you,’ And I’m like, ‘No, you’re not. I need to have a nurse here. Is there a female doctor on staff?’ And now these women are affiliated with the VA. They are so happy to see another woman that they just grab you up, and they actually walk you through the process.
“When I was in the military, I had a sense of purpose,” she explains. “When I came out of the Army, I didn’t know my arm from my elbow. I was too scared to commit suicide, but I thought about killing myself every day. But when [SUS] asked me the right questions, it was like the floodgates opened up.
“It still kicks up from time to time, but I’m mostly free from that now,” adds Custis. “It’s a journey.”