Veterans Health Administration
From victim to caregiver: A sexual assault survivor speaks out
Elane McDade and Carolyn Green, Homeless Program Director at the Shreveport Vet Center.
“I believed the sign when it said, ‘Be all you can be.’”
Elane McDade grew up in rural North Carolina. In 1981, she joined the Army because she wanted to make a better life for herself and her family.
“I was under the impression that when you joined the military that the Army was going to help you become a better person,” McDade said. In the beginning, she enjoyed military life and the opportunities outside her hometown, but then she was raped.
“I just could not believe that I put my life in somebody else’s hands and they took advantage of that,” she said. “That destroyed me for many, many years.”
“I was always looking around me, I never felt safe anywhere. I felt as if the word ‘rape’ was written on my face.”
— Elane McDade, Veteran
After the Assault
It was more than twenty years before McDade started on the road to recovery. After leaving the military, her life spiraled through fear, anger, depression, addiction, a failed marriage, and finally, homelessness.
“I had isolated myself and made myself very defensive,” McDade described. “I was always looking around me, I never felt safe anywhere. I felt as if the word ‘rape’ was written on my face.
“I was so tired of living in this cocoon where nobody could get to me. I was unable to let anyone close to me.”
Moving from Texas to Louisiana in 2003 gave McDade the motivation she needed to change her life. It was a struggle to handle anger issues and substance abuse, while moving in and out of homeless shelters and group therapy.
Somehow in this embattled state, McDade found herself walking into the Shreveport Vet Center for the first time – with no recollection of how she got there.
“I know I was crying, I was walking in with my fists clenched up,” she said. “There was a big glass window there and I asked the secretary if there was someone I could talk to to get some kind of assistance, because I was a Veteran. I didn’t know what kind of help I could get.”
McDade was introduced to Yolanda Burnom, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Vet Center Team Leader.
“She asked me if I was homeless and I was afraid to say yeah, but then she goes into the kitchen and grabbed some food and we kept talking,” McDade described their first meeting. Next thing she knew, Burnom had her laughing, beginning to feel comfortable again.
Burnom’s careful approach was full of constant encouragement and a healthy dose of laughter.
The trust wasn’t there immediately, McDade said, but she began to feel comfortable enough to share some of her story.
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“I have a very difficult time saying the word ‘rape,’” McDade said. “It just put chills in my body. It made me feel dirty, disgusting.
“I was so hurt, so ashamed, and [Burnom] saw that. What she did was get those things out and I could say what I wanted to say and she was there to help me, no matter what.”
After the assault, McDade didn’t tell anyone out of fear for herself and for what might happen to the people she told. She says now that that fear came from her own naivety and trust in her attacker’s warnings to stay silent.
Burnom convinced her to try reliving the experience, using role playing and, eventually, a trip back to the scene of the trauma.
“Even though it was painful, even though it was fearful, I knew I was safe,” she said, describing the trip. “There was always somebody there to help me.”
McDade was accompanied by both Burnom and Shreveport Vet Center’s Homeless Program Director Carolyn Green, RN. At the same time, Green was trying to get McDade off the streets for good.
McDade was staying at the Margaret Brown House, a small women’s transitional housing shelter for recovering substance abusers, while Green got her enrolled in group therapy and education classes through the medical center.
“Drugs and alcohol really weren’t the problem; I was able to see why I was drinking,” she said. “I’ve been clean and sober now going on four years. It’s an ongoing process.”
McDade said she has been truly blessed since coming to Louisiana; she found an unexpected source of support at the Shreveport Vet Center and she also found a spiritual home in the Agape Faith Christian Fellowship. As these people transformed her life and faith, she is now eager to help others.
“I just love being around people – I didn’t realize that until my life changed, until I got help,” she said. “I love to give people smiles and encouragement. I love to make people laugh, because I remember a lot of times I used to come into the hospital and I was so discouraged and someone would smile or say, ‘Have a blessed day’ and that would go a long way.”
She has volunteered at the VA since 2008. Whatever they need help with at the VA, McDade will lend a hand: pushing Veterans in their wheelchairs, cleaning, working the weekend shift at the service desk to help visitors. She is also the chair of the Veterans Advisory Council.
When Green asked her what she wanted to do next, McDade was floored. She had never dreamed of going to college or building a career. McDade is now in the process of applying to nursing school.
“I can see that after all I’ve been though, after all the help I’ve received, now it’s my turn to do something for somebody else. I don’t know who the Lord will put in my life, whether they’ve been through what I’ve been through, but I may be able to give them some words of encouragement.
“It’s been a very hard road. It’s been a very enlightening road. It’s been a very heartfelt road – I’ve got some peace now.”
Military Sexual Trauma