To hell and back: Army veteran, domestic abuse survivor tells her story

Rosemary Freitas Williams, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Policy, stated in an Oct. 14, article on that domestic violence prevention “starts with respect – specifically, to hold in esteem or honor, to show regard or consideration for someone’s rights or preferences.” Not by accident, each of the military services has a set of core values to live by; they include the words “respect,” “service before self,” or “honor.” Just as each service branch has its set of core values, so should every relationship, personal or professional. The Department of Defense is committed to preventing domestic abuse, encouraging prompt reporting, supporting victims and providing appropriate treatment or intervention for all family members affected by the sad business of abuse. - for more information (U.S. Air Force photo/Justin Connaher)
by Kyle Johnson

Editor’s note: The story contains graphic descriptions from a personal account of a domestic and child abuse victim – May not be suitable for all readers.

“Go get undressed and get into bed,” her father said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Helen Holston, not yet old enough to go to elementary school, did as her father told her.

He then proceeded to beat her with a leather belt from neck to toe; he called it branding.

“My dad was in the Army for 22 years, and married my mom while he was stationed overseas,” Holston said. “Things were very rocky between [my parents] and there was a lot of domestic violence between them. Lots.”

Holston said she lived in fear for most of her young life, and when her parents quit beating up on each other, they started beating up on her.

Forty years later, Holston said she has reached a place in her life where she feels it’s important to tell her story. By raising awareness of domestic, child and sexual abuse, Holston said she hopes to empower victims who feel there is no way out and empower military organizations like the family advocacy program to help those people.

“I went to a lot of schools on military bases,” Holston said. “I never told anybody because, at our house, everything was secret. You don’t tell, ever.”

So she didn’t. All through her adolescence, Holston was abused by both her parents. Her mother would beat her with whatever was nearby; her father, with belts she fetched and brought to him herself.

Eventually, Holston’s father’s command forced him to go to counseling with his family. They went twice.

As a preschooler, Holston often cleaned up used contraceptives and vomit after the parties her parents frequently hosted at their house.

“I was the adult, and they were the crazy kids,” Holston said. “When I was 5, my dad and his buddies came into my room.”

They were drunk.

“I acted like I was sleeping,” Holston said. “And they – they did whatever they did to me.”

Holston said she tried to tell her mother, but she wouldn’t listen. Her mother told her she stayed with her dad because he didn’t “bother” her. She meant sexually.

“I had nowhere to turn,” Holston said. “He took showers with me until I was 11. I did not know that was strange.”

The molestation ended when Holston reached the age of 11, but the physical abuse didn’t stop. She became hyper-involved in school. The teachers thought she was an overachiever, a hard-charger, but Holston knew better. She was just doing anything she could to stay away from home.

When she made it to high school, she found solace in the structure of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

“At home, there was no structure. I never knew what I was coming home to. Everything was crazy and chaotic,” Holston said. “JROTC had structure, and it saved my life.”

During high school, Holston was seriously contemplating suicide until she was given a mundane little award. To her, it wasn’t mundane at all. It was a glimpse of light in the perpetual darkness which enveloped her life.

“I’ll never forget when I quit thinking of suicide; it was the stupidest little award I got from drill team. I’d won the six-week drill competition,” Holston said. “It clicked. I could be really good at something.”

Holston went on to be named student of the year and cadet of the year, and become the first female battalion commander for her school. The abuse carried on.

Holston entered the delayed enlistment program, and when she graduated high school, she stayed at a friend’s house for three days before leaving for basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

After graduating from Advanced Individual Training, Holston went to her first duty station, fully intending to create a career for herself in the Army; and away from her parents.

However, she would find out escaping her parents’ influence would be a lot more difficult than moving almost 4,000 miles away.

Holston’s time at Fort Wainwright was rife with conflict; she was married and divorced twice and a noncommissioned officer threatened her life if she did not perform sexual favors for him.

She did not re-enlist.

For more than 20 years, Holston hopped from one state to the next, never quite settling down.

She continued to flit in and out of one abusive relationship and another. Chaos was where she was comfortable; it was all she knew, Holston said.

Then she met Mark Holston, a police officer and former Marine.

“It was like Alice in Chains meets the Brady Bunch,” Helen said. “It’s strange with Mark; he’s kind, he’s calm, generous and compassionate. Those are things I’ve never experienced. It’s odd for me.”

Now, as they approach their 10-year anniversary, Mark said he jokes about growing old together with Helen. He knows it makes her uncomfortable to think about reaching this milestone in their lives, but it’s important she knows he’s not going anywhere.

“I don’t drink anymore, but when I did,” Mark said. “I would see her staring at me; evil-eye staring at me, because the smell of alcohol was triggering bad things.”

Holston said she finally found help through the Department of Veterans Affairs in Pensacola, Florida.

“I’ve been out since [19]90. I had not met a counselor I trusted enough to really deeply share; until 2013,” Helen said. “She helped me through a process called dialectical behavior therapy, and I did a course with her once a week for six months.”

“Pensacola VA was a big pivot point in my life. After DBT, I did nine sessions of trauma–recovery management,” Helen said. “After Pensacola, we came back to Alaska so I could start taking college classes, and Mark could get a job.

“Now I’ve got all this new training from Pensacola. We’ve relocated back to Anchorage. Mark’s got a job on JBER, and I’ve been approved for school.”

Helen was able to connect with a tax preparation class through JBER. And she’s been approved to start taking college classes in the spring through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I have run for office. I have served on the governor’s board here in Alaska. I’ve served on the governor’s board in Alabama,” Helen said. “My dream job, with 20 years of built-up experience [helping veterans], is to work in [Washington] D.C. at central VA to make policy change for continuity for veterans; to make it less of a hardship for veterans to get service-connected disability [benefits].”

Helen has kept her past largely a secret until now. But she has decided it’s time to make a change.

“Ninety-nine percent of my friends never knew I have this background. I just don’t trust people enough to share that,” Helen said. “Now, I think, ‘If it saves one life, it’s worth it.’”

Helen said she isn’t sure where her future will lead, but she is sure of her goals.

“I want to write a book. I want to help people. I want to change my name,” Helen said. “I think I’ll change it to Back, Helen Back; because I have been to hell and back.

It’s perfect.”

Mark said he wonders how different Helen’s life could have been, if someone had intervened, if someone had stood up for Helen as a 5-year-old girl.

“They have these wonderful programs to educate people on looking out for signs; if this had been around 20 years ago when she was going to all these military schools, one of the teachers might have done something,” Mark said. “It could have saved her. Who knows what she could have been.”

The tragedy is, the family advocacy program was established in 1974, when Helen was 7 years old, as a way of detecting child maltreatment. It was later extended to domestic abuse in 1981, but the program was so new, people simply weren’t aware of it.

October was Domestic Violence and Prevention Awareness Month and the JBER Family Advocacy Program was all over base attempting to make people more aware of the resources available. Though the month may be over, the desire to help is still there.

“There are programs out there now, and people have to be willing to take a leap of faith and just do it,” Helen said. “You have to take that chance.”

For more information on the Military’s Family Advocacy Program and other resiliency resources, please visit