Personal Journeys: At war with peace

At war with peace

Sonia Simon returned from service in Iraq, and that was when her troubles began.

She doesn’t remember a whole lot about that evening. All Sonia Simon can recall clearly is the look on her son’s face. It sticks with her, even now.

Simon hadn’t been home long from Iraq. She’d spent a year over there, dodging missiles and ending every night on her knees, begging Please Lord get me home. And she’d made it — made it back to America. Back to Atlanta.

Back to her son Mikey, 6.

But she hadn’t come back alone. Sometimes, someone else seemed to take over her body — an angry someone else. She was the mean motorist who growled at other drivers, the sister who challenged her brother to a fistfight ... the mother who frightened her son.

That evening, she was mad. Simon knows that much. She stood in the living room of their apartment, looking for something to break. Her eyes landed on the television. It was a ponderous old model with a fat tube, the sort that takes two guys to wrestle into place. Simon, 5-foot-3, lifted the set from the table. She raised it over her head.


Maybe, for a heartbeat, it felt good to destroy the TV. Then her eyes landed on her son — Mikey, standing still as a statue, his eyes wide in fear. Mikey, afraid of his mom.

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The TV, Simon realized at that moment, wasn’t the only thing in their home that was broken.

That was five years ago. On a recent afternoon, with her son galloping about a Sandy Springs playground, Simon smiled. It was a slow smile, the sort you offer someone you’ve known a long time. And so Simon has come to know her alter-ego, the frightened, angry woman who stepped off that plane with her when Simon returned from war.

“I suppose my life was out of control,” she said.

Childhood interrupted
Sonia Simon, 33, has eyes that flash with intellect under a knot of hair she ties up in a dark tangle. She laughs a lot.

She was born in Trinidad and Tobago. Listen hard and you’ll hear the slight trace of a Caribbean lilt in her voice. When she talks to her “ma,” she reverts to that patois, her words a dizzy slur of syllables.

When she was 5, Sonia said goodbye to her mother, Ada Simon, who immigrated to the United States to make more money to support her extended family back home. Ada Simon left Sonia and her younger sister, Nicky.

Her mother’s departure haunts Simon to this day. “I have abandonment issues, I think.”

She and her sister stayed with their grandmother, living  in a five-bedroom house in a village called Sobo in southwest Trinidad. On any given night, as many as 16 people were in the house.

“It didn’t feel that crowded at all,” she said. “Everywhere I went, there was an aunt, an uncle, to watch over me.”

She felt secure until age 10, when Muslim fundamentalist Abu Bakr led an uprising against the Trinidadian government. Most of the unrest took place in the capital city Port of Spain, but the rest of the nation felt it.

The little girl watched the insurgency unfold on TV: armed men, people ducking to avoid gunfire, stores shattered and looted. She saw the fear in the adults’ eyes.

She also recalls the military restoring order.

“It was because of that experience that my perception of the military was a positive one,” she said.

In June 1995, Sonia and Nicky moved to America to be with their mother. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a thriving community of Caribbean nationals in Brooklyn.

She hung out with girls like her:  dark-skinned youngsters originally from Haiti, Jamaica and other Caribbean nations. They were from other places, sure, but they were linked — by neighborhood, by school, by shared experiences. Each was navigating uncertain waters: young adulthood. “I was a teenage girl, just trying to understand life.”

In 1998, Simon received her diploma. After a couple of jobs, she enrolled at Brooklyn College. She was 19, seeking direction in her life.

The U.S. Army provided it when recruiters visited the college campus. Seeing the uniforms stirred old memories. She remembered the troops who liberated her homeland and the gratitude she’d felt.

She can recite what a recruiter told her. “Money for school,” she repeated. “You get to travel. You get to experience things you’d never (otherwise) get a chance to do.”

Like go to war.

Question of survival
You listen for the missile. There’s a whistling sound, and you know: Death is on the way.

In Simon’s imagination, there was something else, too. In that awful period between hearing the missile and feeling it hit, the air changed, got heavier. It was like a fist, poised to hit.

Even now, a world away from the battlefield, Simon recalls those missiles with a shake of her head, a shudder in her shoulders.

Serving in Iraq never entered her mind when Simon enlisted in September 1999; it was just a place on the map.

Trained as an “automated logistical specialist” — Army talk for a supply expert — she learned to order the essentials needed for the Army to remain mobile: engines for Hummers, wheels for armored personnel carriers, hatches for helicopters.

She first reported for duty in Suwan Air Base, Korea, and remembers that duty station with a smile. “Korea was the best,” she said. “I was a 19-year-old with a paycheck, no responsibilities, shopping!”

By mid-2001, she was at Fort Hood, Texas, her tenure in the Army coming to an end — or so she thought.

Like the rest of the world, Simon stood before a TV that September morning and watched terror rain on our country — on the World Trade Center’s twin towers; on a field in rural Pennsylvania strewn with the pieces of a doomed airliner; and on the Pentagon, smoking and broken.

The 9/11 attacks would have a profound impact on those who wore the uniforms of the U.S. military. Since 2001, thousands of active and reserve fighters, as well as National Guard soldiers, have been called to battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Simon mustered out in October 2002, many more readied to deploy.

Simon moved from Texas to Georgia to be near her mother, who’d left Brooklyn and bought a home in College Park. She came back five months pregnant, too. But that didn’t stop her from promptly joining the Army Reserve’s 1015th Maintenance Co.

In January 2004 Simon gave birth to Michael. The child’s father, a military contractor she’d met at Ford Hood, promised to move to Georgia to be near his son. She’s no longer waiting on him to fulfill that pledge. She’s raising Mikey on her own. “You live,” Simon said. “You learn.”

In 2007, with three months left in her hitch in the Reserves, Simon got the call. The Army needed her. In Iraq.

“I thought I wouldn’t have to go, I was so close to finishing,” said Simon, who shrugged. “I was wrong.”

As the days before her departure dwindled, Sonia and other members of her family gathered at her mother’s home in College Park. They stood in the living room, maybe 15 of them, holding hands. Each prayed for God to look after Sonia — daughter, sister, cousin, friend. Simon wept.

Her first night in Iraq, the missiles came.

She worked at three bases during her 12-month deployment and estimates she was shelled six or seven times.

She was off-base when a missile struck the office of a lieutenant whose operations were next-door to her office. The blast killed him, blowing shrapnel through the wall into her office. If she’d been at her desk, the missile would have claimed two lives.

“That’s when I thought I would get home alive,” said Simon. Surely, if God had spared her from that, something else was in store for her.

Phantom fears mount
Simon returned to civilian life in June 2008. She came at a gallop, too. In Iraq, Simon had jumped from one task to the next, her days measured by her must-do list; full-tilt was the only speed she knew. When she moved into her mother’s College Park home, Simon was driven — to find an apartment, to enroll her son in school, to begin her own education.

“My mind was always on overload,” said Simon. “It was always going.”

Her mother watched her daughter, and worried. This was not the woman who’d stood in a prayer circle in her living room a year earlier.

“The house, when she returned, was very tense,” said Ada Simon. “We were walking like our feet were on needles.”

She recalled crews blasting stone to build a new runway at nearby Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The dull boom of dynamite made her daughter jump.

Another time, Simon got in an argument with her younger, taller brother, Richard. She was about to slug him when Ada Simon stopped her.

“I told her, 'You need help.’”

Her daughter got an apartment instead. Simon and Mikey moved into a two-bedroom apartment off Roswell Road in Sandy Springs. Using the GI Bill, Simon enrolled in the Atlanta Art Institute, studying graphic arts. She found a preschool for Mikey not far from home. For the first time since returning from Iraq, Simon thought she might be able to relax.

“I thought I had things under control.”

Instead, her life turned into a series of missteps. She rear-ended a motorist. In another driving mishap, she hit a post. She forgot to put gas in her car. At restaurants, she found a seat far from the open door — the best place to be, she figured, when a gunman came blasting in. Putting her key in the apartment’s door, Simon always looked under the steps, certain an assailant waited in the shadows.

She told herself to relax, that her war was over. And it worked ... until she went out to eat, or walked in her front door.

She had trouble getting to class on time. Homework, for some reason, just got harder to do, so she didn’t bother. When she went to register for her third quarter in mid-2011, a registrar delivered the news: Simon was on academic probation.

“I’m a worker,” Simon said. “I can work harder.” The registrar relented and let her enroll for the next quarter.

She tried, too, but Simon just couldn’t focus. In November 2011, she withdrew from school.

Homeless, but not alone
In recent years, the federal government has compiled troubling statistics about female veterans.

• About one in four female veterans is diagnosed with health problems. The most common: hypertension, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

• Female vets are twice as likely to be homeless compared to non-veteran females. Those at the greatest risk are young (18-29) and black.

• The unemployment rate for female vets remains consistently higher than that for men. In 2012, it stood at 8.3 percent; the rate for men was 6.9 percent.

By those measures, Simon is the veteran who worries federal officials the most.

Physicians diagnosed Simon with depression while she was on active duty and after her retirement. They prescribed medication, which Simon took but discontinued. The cure, she said, was worse than the affliction.

One drug gave her vertigo so pronounced that Simon had to lie down. “It was like I was drunk, but I’d had nothing to drink.”

Depression was only part of her problem. She lost her federal educational funding when the art academy put her on academic probation.

Then, one morning in late 2011, her son told her about a nightmare he had:  He’d dreamed they were homeless. A few weeks later, she got the eviction notice.

Simon scraped together enough cash to rent a truck and loaded most of their possessions in it, taking them to a friend’s home. A few days later she returned to the complex to see the rest of her belongings scattered on the lawn outside her former dwelling. She and Mikey were homeless.

For two weeks, mother and son lived a nomadic existence, spending a few nights with one friend, then several more with another.

“That,” said Simon, “was the low point.”

The only way to go, she figured, was up.

In mid-January, the VA enrolled Simon at Mary Hall Freedom House, a Sandy Springs nonprofit that specializes in helping women keep their families intact while dealing with a range of problems — addiction, abuse, poverty, homelessness. For this, said Simon, she will be forever grateful to the VA.

Mary Hall placed her in a two-bedroom apartment just off Roswell Road. It also referred her to an associate program, Every Woman Works Inc. Learning Center.

Another nonprofit, Every Woman Works teaches clients some of the skills they need to find work: How to write a résumé; what to wear to a job interview; how to answer potential employers’ questions.

Tillie O’Neal-Kyles, founder and CEO of Every Woman Works, recalls meeting Simon. The newcomer, she said, looked beat down — by life, by military service, by things she couldn’t — or wouldn’t — discuss.

How did she get this way? O’Neal-Kyles thought. What happened?

O’Neal-Kyles had dealt with other defeated people. Her latest charge, she vowed, would blossom.

One of the hallmarks of Every Woman Works, which is sponsored by corporations, churches and government agencies, is spiritual emphasis. The women, usually about 20 in all, start each day with an “hour of power.” It’s part pep rally, part church service, 100-percent positive.

On her first visit, Simon was quiet while others talked about their lives. The next morning was a repeat of the first — the young veteran listening and remaining silent. A week, then two, passed; Simon smiled, nodded ... and said nothing.

Then, after three weeks, Simon asked to speak. Talking quickly, it all came out — her childhood in Trinidad, the decision to join the Army, the missiles in the dark, the eviction notice.

“It was a turning point for her,” O’Neal-Kyles said.

Afterward, Simon began speaking regularly in the morning sessions and twice preached the morning message. O’Neal-Kyles made another discovery: Simon was a gifted speaker.

Susan Rumble noticed, too. A North Fulton Realtor, Rumble attended a breakfast sponsored by Every Woman Works and listened to Simon’s account of her life. When Rumble needed an employee to handle her social media and blog, she turned to O’Neal-Kyles: Did Every Woman Works have someone available?

“Sonia Simon,” the CEO said.

“That was who I was hoping for,” Rumble replied.

The fact that Simon had dropped out of school and lost her home?

“I feel that all of us, given the wrong circumstances, could end up like that,” Rumble said. “It doesn’t matter to me , not a bit.”

Faith and hope prevail
When she was a child, Simon would wake before daylight, listening. In the next room, her grandmother rustled in the dark. The little girl heard a match strike, then saw the glow of candles in the older woman’s room. That was the signal.

She and the other children would walk into grandmother Eileen’s bedroom, where each knelt. With grandmother watching, each child bowed his or her head to pray — to thank God for another day, to ask for his protection.

The lessons imbued in a shadowy room in Trinidad have followed Simon all her life.

“I was taught at a very early age to talk to God — to call to God. I learned to take stuff to Him at a young age.”

Like her grandmother, Simon begins her day with prayer. She finds a spot in her closet for a few quiet moments.

She took that practice to war, said Jennifer Cintron, her roommate for several months while both were deployed to Iraq. Cintron, an Army sergeant now stationed in New Jersey, watched with a mixture of bemusement and relief as her roomie talked to God. Maybe some of those prayers would rub off on her, too, she thought.

One night, watching Simon kneel, Cintron asked, “How can you pray out loud?”

“I’ve always prayed,” Simon answered. “You just do it.”

Recalling that conversation, Simon smiled. “I prayed that we’d walk closer to God. I just prayed for us to get home in one piece.”

Last year, Simon took her son to her native land, Trinidad and Tobago, where she visited a church she’d attended as a child. The pastor took her aside. When she returned to Atlanta, he said, “you need to find a church that will raise you up.”

She did. Simon, who’d been attending the Atlanta Metropolitan Christian Church for several years, offered her services ... parking cars.

“It’s a part of worship for me,” she said. “Worship is not just being in the church and lifting up your hands.”

Parking cars is the Lord’s work, agreed the Rev. Ben Burnett, the church’s lead pastor. Simon, he said, has handled her travails with grace and faith.

“When I think about Sonia, I think about resilience,” he said. “Our journey in life is not all about successes, but managing obstacles that come in our way.”

Simon can only agree. Everyone’s life, she thinks, is a journey. And who hasn’t felt a bump on the road — or worse?

“I used to think that ... everything would be great when I moved to America,” she said. “I found out, you have problems in America, too.”

Joys, too.

“I am hopeful,” said Simon. “Everything I’ve been through is for a bigger purpose. God is going to work all this out.”

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