Ten Minutes with LouAnn Hazelwood
A veteran who has stitched her life back together
Photo by John Stanmeyer
LouAnn Hazelwood is holding out hope for what’s to come rather than feeling anger about the myriad challenges she’s faced—from childhood bullying and incest to sexual assault and homelessness. Her unique perspective, shaped in large part by six years in the military, is marked by patience and tenacity, qualities she brings to the needlepoint sampler spread across her lap on a recent fall afternoon. With the help of Soldier On, a private nonprofit committed to ending veteran homelessness, she has worked tirelessly to steer her life in a new direction.
What is your military experience?
I was a post-Vietnam Era veteran. I enlisted on March 11, 1976, but didn’t leave my hometown of Troy, New York, for Fort Jackson, South Carolina, until August 2, 1976. I am an East Coast girl, so it was really hot and I lost eleven pounds in basic training. I worked in a communications center. I was in Germany when they took the hostages in Iran. That got to be really scary.
What concerns are endemic to women in the military?
There are lots of women coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq that suffer with PTSD, Military Sexual Trauma and sexual harassment. My heart goes out to them. There are still men who think that women don’t belong in the military. I had an E6—staff sergeant—who I worked for who believed that women should stay home and be barefoot and pregnant. He gave me a lot of harassment when I was pregnant with my first son. And he was not the only one. When I went to Fort Braggand I was pregnant with my second son, I experienced more sexual harassment.
How were you challenged by being a woman in the Army?
My children were very young when I came down on orders to go to Korea. At that time I only had about six months left in the service and they said either I extend it to complete the tour—which would have been a year—or sign a barter reenlistment. I chose not to go because I didn’t think my children would remember me. I sacriced my army career to be a full-time mom. We’ve been made to think that we are underdogs because we are women. That needs to change. And it is changing, slowly.
What role has Soldier On played in your staying connected to the veteran community?
When I got there in 2012, because I had 17 years of total isolation with my husband, I hardly spoke at all. It was kind of a culture shock for me. When I came to a whole house full of women, it was kind of hard to take. I met women from all different walks of life, and sometimes there was a bit of rough water. I stayed until May 2017, and I was actually one of the oldest women in the program—I just turned 62.
I was fortunate to have the program, both Soldier On and Safe Passage, who helped me to get my divorce and I only had to pay $20 toward the whole process. They say the day I came home from court it was like a load had been lifted off of my shoulders. Ever since, my life has turned 180 degrees.
How integral is the role of veteran to your identity?
I’m really grateful for becoming a veteran. I never realized how appreciative people were of my service time until I got to Soldier On. There were so many people who would just give gifts of love throughout the year. Just in appreciation for the fact that we served. The director of Soldier On has told me that he wants to use me as a “house mom” to the younger women, which is fine with me. I’m really looking forward to that role.
What have been your challenges to readjusting to civilian life?
There were times that I got overwhelmed, and I would go for short stays in the psych unit. I have PTSD, and I’ve never really tapped into that. There were times that I got despondent, and I’m grateful that the program was there. They taught me coping tools.
How has Soldier On helped to empower you to think about your future?
Soldier On is going to add veteran’s housing for women in Pittsfield and when they do, I’m guaranteed a brand new apartment. I am so excited. This has been a long time coming—it’s going to open a lot of doors for a lot of women.
What outlets, if any, have supported the processing of your experience?
My spirituality has gotten stronger as I’ve gotten older. I started going to the Lanesborough 7th Day Adventist Church back in 1997, and I’ve been a member of that church on and off ever since. I’ve worked in their preschool classes, in fact I’m just about to fill out paperwork to assist as a teacher’s aid for the second time. The thing I enjoy the most, outside of the military, is taking care of children. Just this past summer I was in a show at the Williamstown Theatre Festival called Once Upon a Time in the Berkshires. I was one of the water people who sang and did a dance during the wedding in the play. I kind of befriended [a younger actor] who needed someone to watch over him. That made me feel good.
What will you be doing on Veterans Day?
I don’t really want to think about myself. I’ve been watching the news and seeing the struggles that Texas and Louisiana are going through. I wouldn’t want to end this interview without thinking of them. I know what it’s like to be homeless. I know what it’s like to be destitute, and not have a penny to my name. And my heart goes out to these people. When I see everyday people on the street helping their brothers and sisters and people they don’t even know—that really makes me proud to be an American. If I could, I would be
a financial blessing to them. But I’m on such a fixed income it’s hard. Seeing the National Guard on deployment to help these people is an amazing thing. And it makes me proud to have been in the military.