Finding Peace

The Herald | Finding Peace

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Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Marlena Sloss

Getting married, having children and establishing a stable home equates to living the American dream for many people.

But for Sequiyah (McClendon) Hawkins, it means more than that.

“It means security,” she said from the new home she and her husband, Steven, have with their three children in Huntingburg. “It means stability. It means peace.”

As a victim of a sexual assault, it is the peace and security that means the most to her. Sequiyah, 43, now battles post-traumatic stress disorder that came from the assault, which happened while she was in the military.

“I went in [the Army] thinking that the people in authority were responsible for you, and they should take care of you,” she said. “But that didn’t happen. And that has taken a heavy toll on my life.”

Sequiyah displays a photograph of her in the U.S. Army taken in Fort Jackson, S.C., at age 19. "I'm a daddy's girl. You know that feeling, like your daddy's going to protect you? That's how I feel about the military," Sequiyah said. "The military didn't protect me."

Sequiyah was born in Atlanta. “We grew up in the ghetto, and it was truly the ghetto,” she said. Her mom, Angela, raised Sequiyah and her siblings, Jermeka "Meka" Singletary, Ikeisha "Keisha" Wills, and Manoah "Noah" McClendon on her own until she met Willie Gaines, the man who Sequiyah would call dad. They married and had a daughter together, Sequiyah’s youngest sister, Kristy. The family moved to the suburbs after her dad’s landscaping business became successful.

“So we went from a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and that's all we knew, to the suburbs, where we were now the minorities,” Sequiyah said. “It was a lot to process. It was a culture shock.”

As she grew up, Sequiyah's older sisters Meka and Keisha graduated from high school and went into the U.S. Army. She did the same, and went into basic training and advanced individual training in South Carolina for four months. After that, she was sent to Germany and went through transition training before going to the base with her unit.

While in Germany, she was raped by a higher-ranking official, a sergeant first class.

“After the assault happened, he kept me there for two hours. And in that two-hour period, he berated me and talked down to me, telling me that nobody would want me and that I was his and said that I better not tell anybody,” Sequiyah recalled. “He was hovering over me very aggressively, just talking, I felt trapped.

“To this day, I hear it.”

After the assault, the sergeant stalked Sequiyah, despite them moving on to separate assignments in the Army. He would find her to torment her mentally and emotionally.

“I never told anyone about the assault,” she said, “because I didn’t want to seem weak. At that time, I thought I let him do this to me.”

She eventually shared with one of her neighbors who noticed the man coming to Sequiyah’s door in the barracks and demanding to be let in. The neighbor reported the sergeant, and his chain of command told him to stay away. But he continued to stalk her more subtly, with the help of other soldiers.

Sequiyah began a relationship with a different soldier, and ended up pregnant with her first child, Aryanna. “The reason I was with Ary’s dad was because he outranked him (the stalker). Rank was protection. And I wanted someplace safe.” The relationship did not last.

Sequiyah looks out the window while taking a break from her schoolwork on Sept. 22. She frequently experiences memory loss, which she says is due to her PTSD. 

Sequiyah’s unit, including the stalker, went to Kosovo. But she didn’t go because she was pregnant. “That was freedom, because he was gone, too,” she said.

But the stalker kept contacting her and had others watching her. By then, she was living in an apartment with her daughter.

“I was petrified, because I had a little one,” she said. So I started eating. And I started gaining weight.”

Because of that, Sequiyah started failing her physical tests. Her officials told her that if she didn’t get back to the proper weight, she would be discharged.

So she continued to eat a lot. She saw it as a way to escape.

“I knew he was coming back,” she said. “I knew they were coming back from Kosovo.”

After failing another physical, Sequiyah was honorably discharged for weight. “It was like the only way I could get away from him,” she said. She’d completed three years of what was to be a four-year tour.

She moved back home to Georgia. “My mom was disappointed that I got out early. And I never told them why. At that time, I didn't tell anybody,” she said. “So it was really hard, because they didn’t understand. They would say that I left and I came back different. I was the one who was always happy, you know. I was the strong one. I was the tall one. I was the protector of my family. But when I came back, I was a whole different person.”

She stayed with her parents for a short time and then moved out on her own. But she had a hard time being structured and following what she was supposed to do.

“I couldn't find stability. I would sabotage myself and I didn’t have the impulse to be responsible,” Sequiyah said. “Like, you know you have to pay rent in two days, and you go blow it on toys for your kid. And in your mind you're saying, ‘Why are you doing this? You know you have to pay rent.’ But you do it, and afterward, you regret it. So we had a lot of years of instability.”

She and Ary moved around a lot. Sequiyah was 21 then, but she had no real life experience yet. And she had a lot of pent-up emotions that she hadn’t faced.

Sequiyah and her husband, Steven, sign the final paperwork for their new home in Huntingburg on Aug. 31. The new home represents a new chapter for Sequiyah. 

“I just wanted to be happy, but I didn’t know how to be happy. I wanted to be my old self, but didn’t know how,” she said. “It was hard to keep friendships. And I didn’t want a relationship per se, because I had a daughter and I was terrified that I would bring someone into her life that would hurt her.”

One thing she was adamant about was teaching young Ary how to fend for herself in dangerous situations.

“Ary grew up with me teaching her hand-to-hand combat and safe words,” Sequiyah said. “We had one safe word that meant go hide, quietly hide. There was a safe word that meant leave the house; we already had a place where she knew she had to go if she had to leave the house. I wasn’t thinking, ‘This might not be healthy to teach a 4-year old.’”

Sequiyah didn’t want her daughter to experience what she had been through.

“I was just trying to survive because I felt vulnerable. I felt like I didn't have a protector. I didn't have a husband,” Sequiyah said. “I had to keep her from harm. And the only way I knew how to do that was by teaching her all that, going through scenarios, teaching her about weapons.”

Sequiyah's stalker still kept tabs on her, for years.

“The last time I heard from him was two years ago,” she said. “So even after I left [the military], he would find me. I never felt safe. And I never wanted anybody to know. I didn’t want anybody to know that someone was stronger; someone was bigger. I felt like he took my power.”

Sequiyah was living in Georgia, and her sister Meka, who was still involved in the military, offered Sequiyah a place to stay in Virginia with her family. She moved, but within a few months, her sister’s family received military orders that took them to Texas. Sequiyah decided to stay in Virginia and moved in with a family her sister knew needed childcare services.

Sequiyah leaves a therapy session at LifeSpring Health Systems in Jasper on Oct. 7. 

“I had just started school and I wanted to finish,” Sequiyah said. “I wanted to finish something that I started.” She was almost 30 then.

But when the family didn’t need Sequiyah for childcare, they told her that she had to leave. “I had like six more months of school left,” she said. “I was going to school full time and working part time, so I couldn't afford to get my own place. And this came out of the blue.”

That hurt Sequiyah. “She (the family matriarch) was the pastor of a church. So it was just like another authority that failed me,” she said. “They used me, and when they didn’t need me anymore, they cast me aside. That’s how I felt.”

Meka wanted her to come to Texas, but Sequiyah was determined to finish school. There were many government jobs in Virginia that were available to people with a bachelor’s degree.

Then someone told her about a transition shelter for single mothers who were homeless called Hope House. She called, but the shelter didn’t have a place for them. Another shelter had a place for her, but not for her daughter.

Sequiyah was about to send her daughter to Texas to live with Meka’s family. Before that happened, Hope House called back and said there was an opening for her and Ary. They went to live there.

And Sequiyah had a hard time adjusting.

“There were a lot of women and children, and you had to do things together. You had to have counseling, which was my first time,” she said. “After I talked to the counselor, she asked if I’d been in the military. I told her yes. And she asked if I’d heard of PTSD. I hadn’t.”

The counselor suggested more counseling, which Sequiyah was resistant to doing. She also had problems with the other ladies at the shelter. So they had a group meeting and the ladies shared their feelings.

Sequiyah prays before a meal on Sept. 22.

“One of the ladies, she stood up and said, ‘No one wants to say it, but she thinks she is better than all of us.’ And I jumped up and I said, ‘I am better than all of you,’” Sequiyah recalled. “It was a defense. I didn't want anyone to get close. And I didn't let my daughter play with them.”

The management at Hope House checked everyone’s accounts to make sure they were saving money. “But I didn’t. It was in me to hide things. So I hid my money," Sequiyah said. "I didn't trust them. They were authority.”

Her actions put her on the road to getting kicked out of Hope House. They called Sequiyah in to let her know that she would have to leave. During the meeting, Sequiyah blacked out.

“I don't know what happened, because I don't remember it happening. But they told me later that I had, in the middle of the conversation, switched from having a conversation with them to having a conversation with somebody completely different,” she said. “I remember coming back to when I felt someone shake my hand. She had tears in her eyes and she was like, ‘Baby, what happened to you?’ They said they were going to let me stay because I really needed counseling. They realized I was more broken than I was letting on.”

One of the ladies at Hope House took Sequiyah to church with her. “I had kind of turned my back on God already,” Sequiyah said. “When I was back in Georgia, I went to a church and this pastor prayed for me, and then he hit on me. So I was done with church for a while.”

But when her friend took her to Grace Church of Fredericksburg, it made a life-changing impact on Sequiyah.

“I learned how to love again, and how to love God. The biggest thing is I learned how not to fear men,” she said. “They are big on men being godly, being godly husbands. And they loved me and respected me there.”

Sequiyah got involved in her new church home and got to know a lot of people there. She felt loved.

“That restored my hope in Jesus and His people," she said. "But I was still having nightmares and anxiety attacks.”

Sequiyah went through more counseling, but still kept up her self-built wall around her true emotions. She obtained her bachelor's degree in business administration from Beacon University and got a job with the Virginia Department of Veterans Affairs, which she loved. It was there where she started realizing the effects of the trauma she suffered.

“I helped veterans obtain their service-connected disability,” she said. “You had people who came in that had been sexually assaulted and had PTSD, and you had to read their statements on what happened.”

She was able to handle seeing all this and doing her job for a while. But the stress and emotions she’d kept inside for years suddenly emerged.

Sequiyah, left, eats lunch with Sabra Johnson of Birdseye, Mariah Doss of Jasper and Amanda Bell of Jasper at Brew in Jasper on Sept. 23. Spending time with friends is important for Sequiyah to have a break from being at home and to build community.

One day while she was in her office, she thought she was having a heart attack. She was taken to the hospital and found out that she was having a panic attack. She stayed in the hospital. “It felt like a dam had been broken and I couldn’t patch it anymore. I just couldn’t,” she said. “I started having hallucinations. And I was still having nightmares.

“I was trying to fight for control. But my mind and my body were no longer allowing me to be in control. It was horrible.”

Sequiyah was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “So I am a disabled veteran because of the PTSD,” she said. “And the sucky part was that I worked with all the people who I had to go see, all the counselors. So I was already stressed out about going. They all knew me in my work role. But now they had to deal with me as a patient.”

Sequiyah had to find a counselor outside of the VA. And that was when her healing journey began.

“It was better in the sense that I didn't feel like a volcano. I had a counselor who didn’t let me be evasive,” she said. “And I knew I had to get better for the sake of my daughter.” She and the counselor met for months, and she was put on medication.

Sequiyah eventually left Hope House and got her own place. She was also promoted — to veterans service representative for Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.

She reconnected with an old friend, Steven Hawkins Jr., fell in love, and married him in 2017. They moved to Indiana so that Steven could be close to his daughter, Abigail. Sequiyah connected with the VA in Evansville to continue her counseling, which she did via Zoom. She now goes to counseling locally.

The couple suffered one miscarriage before having Steven Hawkins III in 2018. And Sequiyah became a stay-at-home mom.

“It was better for me to be home,” she said. “I wanted to work. I like working. I like the independence that comes with it. And I'm really good at it. But I still have a hard time trusting people. I didn't trust anyone here enough to keep him.”

She is very protective of all three of her children, including Abbi, who she says is her bonus daughter. They have a special bond.

Sequiyah waves to a neighbor while spending time outside her home with her son, Steven, 1, on Sept. 22. 

“When we miscarried, I was depressed. I couldn’t sleep, but I couldn’t get out of bed,” Sequiyah said. “Abbi climbed into my bed and stroked my face. She told me, ‘Mama Quiyah, I prayed. God told me that He is going to give you another little boy. So don’t be sad, because the other baby is in Heaven. He’s with Him now.’”

Then Abbi told her, “And now, I’m gonna sing to you.” Abbi sung worship songs she’d learned while rubbing Sequiyah’s head. Their bond solidified in that moment.

“I felt love just pouring out of her into me. My heart grew. The next day, I could get out of bed.”

Even with her adult daughter, Sequiyah is very protective. “Ayranna is 22 now, and I still have issues with her going to any event without me,” she said.

Sequiyah has noticed other results of the PTSD.

“My memory is horrible,” she said, “so I write down a lot of things. I can sometimes be in the middle of a conversation, and the thought just goes, my focus just goes. And I don't want to say, ‘What were we just talking about? It can be embarrassing.”

The family had lived in Jasper when they first moved to Indiana, but decided earlier this year to have a home built in the Hunters Crossing subdivision in Huntingburg. As soon as they made that decision, Sequiyah went to the area to meet her future neighbors. “I knew three families already. And they were checking on the construction so they would send me pictures and say, ‘Your siding just went up,’” she said.

After moving into their home in late August, they discovered that their next-door neighbors were friends they knew from their church, Redemption Christian Church. And the others in the neighborhood are slowly becoming friends.

“It's such a diverse neighborhood,” she said. “You have African-American people here. We have gay couples. And everyone is really sweet and welcoming.”

Sequiyah and Steven invite their neighbors and friends from church to their home for get-togethers. Sequiyah loves to cook and feed people, so she is always inviting people over for a meal. She is also now part of a book club, and is pursuing her master's degree in business.

While she has found a lot of joy in her life, she still struggles with bouts of depression.

“I try to be happy. But sometimes, I come home just exhausted from the effort. It takes a toll,” she said. “And usually when it’s that bad, it’s usually because I'm having nightmares, which means I haven’t slept. That’s a major thing for veterans with PTSD, the no sleeping.”

But she perseveres.

“I have my faith, my family and my friends,” Sequiyah said. “There will be more hard days ahead. But I know I have God, my husband and my family to support me.”