By Donalevan Maines
Photo by John Everett
Valerie James—out soldier, soulful survivor—is “decompressing.”
Last month, she portrayed her experience as a suicidal schizophrenic—twice in the military and twice homeless—in Telling: Houston at the Alley Theatre. “People came up and touched me,” she explains. “They prayed over me. People cried every night. It was cathartic. It was terrifying.”
James would like a minute to take it all in.
The Montrose maven compares her military experience to what the LGBT community faces every day. “The difference is that we were trained for war,” she says. “Gay people are just born into it. Like veterans, the gay community suffers PTSD from persecution. We all need help, but in the LGBT community, we also have the judgment, the ridicule, and the potential for violence.”
James smiles. “It’s really cool: the first time I knew I was gay, I was 10 years old,” she says. “A 14-year-old girl was making me a sandwich. She smiled and I literally could not take my eyes off of her.”
A memory like that “elevates” her, says James. “When you start feeling depression, it’s all about what can elevate you at that moment,” she explains. “I will walk. I will get a friend on the phone, even if I don’t feel like talking, because your friend gets happy to hear your voice and they get excited, and that elevates you.”
Telling: Houston marked the 37th time the Austin-based Telling Project Institute has gone to a U.S. city, conducted interviews, then constructed a script interweaving the participants’ stories into a three-act play. James and five other U.S. veterans, plus a military spouse, were cast in Telling: Houston, following interviews in January.
“It’s our story,” states Reda Hicks, the Humble lawyer who portrayed her experience of raising a baby boy while her husband fought in Afghanistan. “My part focused on the challenges of a geo-batch, or geographical bachelor. Geo-batch is sort of inside-baseball for living apart. You come up with humor like that to make up for a bad situation. As my husband told me, we have to embrace the ‘suck.’”
James introduced herself to the audience by saying, “I’m currently studying psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown. I’m fascinated by the human mind. What breaks it. What happens.”
She tells OutSmart, “At the end of this semester, I will need two more classes to graduate. I will definitely take them this summer. I lived through Afghanistan; I will get that bachelor’s degree, damnitall.”
James told audiences that she joined the military “out of survival.”
She explains, “I was a Jersey Girl, raised in Jersey City [New Jersey]. It was a nervous neighborhood, a very violent place.”
In her freshman year of high school, she explains, “I started hearing voices telling me to kill myself. I had horrible panic attacks that led to a kind of catatonic state. I couldn’t be around people, so I hid in a little attic for three years. In my senior year, I came out of it. By that time, one of my siblings was dead, another was in jail. My friends were dead or on drugs or prostitutes. I think God kept me in my little attic and away from all that. When I woke up, I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ I called a recruiter. I told him my history. He should have said, ‘Oh, hell no.’ But I think he felt pity for me and said, ‘Okay.’ So, in 1985, I joined the Army.”
James told Alley audiences, “It’s strange to enter the military when you’re not quite crazy and not quite sane.”
She was trained as a counselor, with her first duty station a lockdown mental unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington DC. “I thought, ‘This is apropos.’”
Six years later, James left the military for a life on the streets.
For a year, she lived in a storage unit. “I already had my blankets in there,” she explains. “It was dark. It was beautiful. The dark felt really, really good.”
Eventually, however, James realized, “What feels most comfortable will kill you.” Rejoining society, she says, “Life went on. I was working. But then came 9/11. I was in Maryland, 10 miles from [the attack on Washington DC], and something triggered. I don’t want to say ‘triggered.’ It ‘happened again.’ I had friends in Houston, so I grabbed my suitcase and came here with a little bit of money.”
Again, James went homeless. “The program that took me off the street was U.S. Veterans Initiative,” she says.
In 2011, when James returned to Houston after her second deployment, U.S. Veterans Initiative hired her as a case manager. She remained employed with them until earlier this year, when she stopped to focus on graduating from college.
James says that like other members of the LGBT community, she still has “war wounds” from discrimination—especially the “witch hunt” that was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
“But look at the changes,” she says. “We can get married in a state like Texas. If that is not progress, what is?”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.