BREAKING
THE SILENCE

Army veteran Tawna Little faces the challenges of overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder as she provides a future for her young son and nieces.

Clutching a T-ball team photo in her 8-year-old hands, she slowly filled with rage. The girls stood neatly in two lines, squinting into the sun, their white skin shining – all but the brown-skinned one.

Tawna Little hated the photo.

Her grandmother hated it even more. She wouldn’t tolerate Tawna being ashamed of the history of her people – the history that made her, the girl standing at the end of the back row, the only brown girl in the photo.
Because if Tawna hated the way she looked then she hated the way her “G-ma,” Dicey, looked.

Hated the way her mom, Karen, looked.

Hated being Indian.

Many things can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder: inherited mental health, life experiences, traumatic childhood experiences, how your brain reacts to stress.

Tawna Little, 31, is a Muscogee (Creek) living in Tulsa. From 2008 to 2009, she served in the U.S. Army in Kuwait to offset tuition at the University of Oklahoma and to fulfill a sense of protecting her family.

For those two years, on top of her duties as a human resource specialist, she worked every day to gain the respect a female minority in the military simply doesn’t have.

“It’s a hard place to be as a female because, to put it in terms of my brother, you’re either the bitch or the ho,” Tawna said.

It’s a hard place to be as a female because, to put it in terms of my brother, you’re either the bitch or the ho” Tawna Little

Sexual harassment from American troops was never-ending. Playing basketball elicited comments and accusations of cheating from other females. One male soldier aggressively hunted Tawna on the base after she rejected him, forcing her to spend some time running and hiding when he was around.

“It’s this unspoken, secret thing that goes on,” she said.

She has never talked to her family about what sexual harassment she endured while serving her country because in the chance she gets deployed again, she knows it’s all her family will think about.

Tawna and Son

From those years, filled with memories Tawna tries to forget, one thing stands out: The way American troops treated locals upset her to no end. Locals working on base weren’t treated as people, but as “hodgies.” American troops destroyed their trash and anything they weren’t taking home so those hodgies digging through the trash couldn’t use it.

“These people aren’t the enemy and the sooner you realize that, the sooner we will be done,” she would tell other soldiers. “These people are just trying to work and survive. Just like you.”

More than 7,000 miles separate Kuwait and Norman.

Home in August 2009, friends and family welcomed Tawna back, like the ones on TV. Just two days later: “Why haven’t you kept in touch with me? When are you getting back to work and school?”

When Tawna closes her eyes, she relives her days in Kuwait. She remembers the men and women who treated her, other soldiers and nationals so badly. The man at the Kuwait International Airport who, while working in civilian clothing with no weapons, she feared would become her kidnapper. Everyone who told her she had to be the bitch or the ho. She doesn’t tell her family about what she’s seen and still sees. And they don’t ask. But those memories have started to fade.

“In my mind, I went there to protect my family and if I come home and vomit all that negative energy, I don’t feel like I’m protecting them.”

Marcus Briggs-Cloud, her longtime boyfriend, couldn’t take the silence. He confronted her a couple months later with an idea: You have PTSD. Tawna became even more upset. Now, she thought, Marcus was trying to change her.
“Marcus knew me before I left and he didn’t know me when I came back.”

The responsibilities and decisions facing Tawna seemed impossible – totally alien – after deployment. But within months of her return, she was enrolled in undergrad classes at OU.

The symptoms of PTSD include: flashbacks of traumatic experiences, nightmares, avoiding certain places and objects, numb emotions, feeling anxious, guilty or depressed.

It’s March 2011 and Tawna is meeting her sisters, brother and their kids at Star Skate in Norman.
Shaunday, Tawna’s oldest sister, brought her daughters. Her other sisters, Lindsey and Alisa, and their mother came. Marcus was there, too. Soon, everyone was circling the rink, laughing and dancing to the loud music filling the neon-lit building minutes from the OU campus.

Hailey, Shaunday’s oldest daughter, laughed especially hard when her mom lost her balance and fell. They skated in circles. Falling and laughing and getting back up with each other’s help – recent stress fading even if just for a few hours.

Shaunday is the loud sister. Her daughters the same, opinionated and outspoken in a family and culture where women are generally quiet.

Tawna sees herself in her mom and G-ma. They’re all reserved – a characteristic they said runs deep in many Native women. They have strong opinions, but aren’t confrontational or overtly vocal. They keep to themselves, something Tawna said stems from her childhood.

“You just learn to keep quiet because you know you’ll be safer that way,” she said.

You just learn to keep quiet because you know you’ll be safer that way.” Tawna Little

Tawna played defense. If nobody can get in, nobody can hurt you. That changed when she accepted she had PTSD.

Shaunday’s noise bothered Tawna, sometimes so much that she’d ask her to stop talking. Now it’s what she misses most.

On March 6, 2011, days after the family roller-skating outing, Shaunday died in a car accident.

Women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men, and are more likely than men to seek help after a traumatic event.

Tawna and Marcus adopted a son last year.

“When he wakes up in the morning and he smiles at you and when you say his name and he smiles at you; it’s in those moments when you’re just like – this is the greatest love.”

Tawna knows she could get a job, and might when the time is right. But after serving and finishing school, she’s on a steady path to getting better, doing independent research on PTSD and taking up competitive kickboxing, for which she trains extensively.

Last year, she found herself staring across the boxing ring at an undefeated fighter giving Tawna the look of absolute hate. Her trainer warned Tawna of the challenge ahead. She hadn’t eaten much lately to lose weight for the match. But then it didn’t matter. Tawna had to let up, go easy on her.

After studying PTSD in college, eventually choosing it for her senior year capstone research topic, she was faced with the ultimate test.

Her younger brother, Micah, and cousin returned from overseas shortly after Tawna. Micah had been in Afghanistan and, like Tawna, received a warm welcome. But his lasted much longer than two days. He was given time to think and recover. Time to decide what to do next. Time to zone out and get his head out of the war.

Tawna became a liaison between her brother and the rest of the family, who still didn’t know a thing about Tawna’s PTSD.

She would explain to her family, “He just went through some of the most mentally challenging events of his life. He doesn’t mean to be angry at you.”

And to her brother, “They will never see what you’ve seen. They can’t understand what we’re feeling.”
On top of becoming the bridge between her brother and family, Tawna gained another new role. Her dead sister’s little girl started to call her “mom.”

“It’s awkward for her to call me ‘mom’ because I know I can’t fill that position. But I try to imagine her telling people ‘I don’t have a dad and my mom died.’ Who does she have?”

PTSD treatments include but are not limited to: learning about PTSD, helping others with PTSD, confiding your feelings in a trustworthy person, surrounding yourself with positive people, challenging yourself mentally and physically.

Steam from a hot pot of grape dumplings blows into Tawna’s face. The grapes for the recipe used to grow in wild bushes behind Grandma Dicey’s home just down the street, but now they have to use Welch’s juice. The Wilson community center, a warehouse building with three large rooms and a kitchen, becomes a cultural life source the first Sunday of every month.

Wilson is home to 1,745 other Oklahomans, and holds the original Dawes Act land allotment Dicey’s grandmother received, where she still lives today.

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As the family and a few community members finish up their second helpings of frybread, barbeque chicken, grape dumplings and sweet tea, the children restart their games of tag between the connected rooms as the adults prepare for their Creek language lesson – something they feel compelled to learn before elders die, taking the language with them.

“I was talking to my daughter yesterday about the lesson and just all of the sudden I realized time is of the essence,” Dicey said. “Thinking about myself, I probably don’t have too much longer to live. Time is just racing by.”

The family has always emphasized the importance of learning the Creek language, but has recently taken the lessons more seriously. Dicey, who learned from everyday conversation in her childhood but was forced to speak only English in boarding school as a child, listens and corrects the “students” – about a dozen neighbors and family trying their absolute hardest to understand the intricacies of the Creek language.

Marcus regularly teaches Creek around Oklahoma, so he chimes in too, sometimes to Tawna’s teasing disapproval.
“Hey, I didn’t ask you!”

Hailey, Shaunday’s daughter, is especially adept to learning the language. When she stays with G-ma, she never complains about lessons, often disguised by G-ma as simple conversations.

Hailey is 8. She recently chose to stop wearing her traditional Creek skirts that Tawna makes for her to school.
“I’m scared to wear my skirt to school because if I wear my skirt to school I think I’ll feel awkward,” Hailey said.

Hailey begs her “mom” and “dad” to be homeschooled or put back in immersion school.

Tawna Little Military

Struggling with the same identity issues Tawna experienced as a child, Hailey sees Tawna as the closest thing she has to a mom. As eager as Tawna is to provide for her niece, it scares her. She knows she can’t replace Hailey’s mother.

Karen, Tawna’s mother, has legal custody of both Hailey and Shayla, Shaunday’s daughters.

March 2, 2013 would have been Shaunday’s 27th birthday. Four days before the second anniversary of her death.

The family, after much convincing from Hailey, drove to Norman to Star Skate. The entire family took over the rink – Hailey clinging to the wall.

Eventually, Hailey found herself circling the ring with even better support – in the hands of Tawna and Marcus.
“I would’ve liked to have known that person Shaunday was growing into,” Tawna said. “I think we saw a glimpse of that that first night we went to the skating rink.”

The memory of her sister lives on inside Tawna. Challenged by both the memories of serving in Kuwait and the future of providing for Hailey and Shayla, as well as her 2-year-old adopted son and the couple’s first child together, expected in late February 2014.

Her contemplative face of stress and responsibility melts when Mekkaneko hums a Creek hymn. For a collection of moments, the PTSD she’s claimed since childhood never existed.

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Gena Timberman Vitali