By Shondalea Wollaston
By all calculations, Danielle Joliet, age 34, should not be a success story.
At age 13 she began using drugs, and by age 17 she had been emancipated from her parents and found herself alone, waking up on the steps of a house in Kensington, Philadelphia unable to move her body, but fully awake.
“This was my first experience with a [rock] bottom and as fear sunk in I realized I had to do something different,” said Joliet.
Joliet said drugs and alcohol were easy to come by and they quickly took a hold of her.
“I justified my behavior with blaming just about anybody or anything around me, and had no clue back then what taking responsibility for my actions even looked like,” said Joliet.
Without a criminal record, and desperate enough to try, she walked into a U.S. Army Recruiting Center hoping for a way out. Joliet said she remembers she felt desperate and hopeless, but willing to make a change.
“The recruiter didn’t judge me on my appearance,” she said. “He merely asked if I could pass a drug test and if I graduated from high school, to which I replied, no. He could have easily turned me away.”
The recruiter told her to come back the next day with sneakers in hand, ready to work. With his help, Joliet said she got sober and earned her GED.
Now 18, and a soldier in the U.S. Army, Joliet reported for boot camp in Fort Jackson, S.C., and was deployed to Germany. Following a relationship with a fellow soldier, she became pregnant and knowing the possibility of a transfer, the couple decided to marry.
Joliet said the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 again forced her into another difficult situation. Faced with choosing between her infant son and her duties in the military, she took a hardship discharge and went into the inactive reserve. Her husband was deployed to Iraq and Joliet says she lost all communication down range.
“I began to experience feelings of abandonment as well as resentment, as I was forced to raise our son alone,” said Joliet. “I felt I had chickened out of going, that I had abandoned the men and women who would die for me.”
Joliet believed her husband returned from deployment feeling mentally broken and resenting the fact that she was able to stay home with their son.
“We both worked hard to piece together a new life outside the military, but soon we turned to alcohol to cope with reintegration,” she said. “Our marriage did not survive the transition.”
Desperately searching for what she described as “a sense of purpose,” Joliet returned to Philadelphia, finding it very easy to sink back into the old ways and once again turned to drugs and alcohol for an escape.
After some time had passed, Joliet said she began to realize she needed more from life than the high that so quickly faded.
“I had collected enough evidence that I could not run my life on my own so I went back to where I had last felt good about myself, THE ARMY,” said Joliet.
In 2005, Joliet returned to the Army reserve as a Military Police Officer and enrolled in the Municipal Police Academy at DCCC.
Working the 11:00pm- 3:00a.m. shift at UPS, Joliet was able to maintain health care for herself and her son. She returned home at 3:30a.m., slept for two hours, and would head into the police academy after dropping her son off at school.
“I survived on coffee and Red Bull,” Joliet said. “It’s a combination I still unfortunately use today from time to time.
Joliet did well at the academy and after graduation in 2006, she went on to work as a police officer at Southeast Delco school district, South Coatesville Police Department, and Yeadon Borough. A single mom, working three -part time jobs, and a Sergeant in the U.S. Army, Joliet said she was proud of her accomplishments.
“I began to feel as if I was finally piecing my life together,” she added.
In 2008, Joliet’s reserve unit was deployed to Iraq and she said she found herself faced with the “gut wrenching decision of choosing between family or country.”
“This time I just could not walk away from service to my country,” she explained. “I may never be able to explain why service to my country means so much to me, but what I do know is that when I felt as if I were nothing, the Army built me, gave me a sense of loyalty, duty, honor and respect that I could never give myself, and I continue to feel drawn to repay that,” said Joliet.
For Joliet, the most difficult part was finding the words to help her six-year-old understand that she had to leave him to go to work.
“I had to cut off a piece of myself,” she said. “No one prepares you for that, no one tells you how to turn it off-we all do it in our own way,” said Joliet.
After her deployment to Iraq, Joliet began to immerse herself in the mission but found a new high in physical fitness, specifically running daily. The escape allowed her to forget her life back home and soon she began to disengage and mentally prepare for the very real possibility of never returning home.
Surrounded by Marines and soldiers who had lost limbs and had been blown up, Joliet awoke to find herself at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, after being medivacked following a severe stress fracture to her hip.
“It all happened so quickly,” she said. “It felt like I went to sleep in Iraq and woke up in the States.”
Her entire military career she heard, “drink water and drive on” but Joliet believes her untreated mental and physical anguish led to water just not being enough.
Forced to lay in a hospital bed for months, Joliet wrestled with her thoughts while continuing to take more pills. She watched helplessly as her fellow soldiers died or moved on. Stories of military member suicide or accidental overdose became common.
Joliet was notified by the Army that she would not be able to return to service or her duties as a police officer due to the severe injury to her hip.
“I was devastated, but re-enrolled in classes at DCCC,” she said. Joliet admits she began to drink more and more, while struggling with depression.
Joliet soon reconnected with a fellow soldier she met during her deployment to Iraq.
“Although just friends at the time, his care and concern was something special and I found myself falling in love,” she said. “I moved to Virginia with him all the while avoiding my feelings of identity loss.”
A few months after her discharge, the couple married and Joliet said she was able to maintain her connection to the military as a “military wife,” but said soon her feelings could no longer be avoided and worthlessness and shame began to creep in.
“Drugs had slipped away as a coping mechanism, but I ushered in alcohol and found myself drinking to celebrate, drinking to unwind, and drinking because it was a good day or bad day, drinking because I deserved it,” she said. “I became entitled to drink and the drink became entitled to my life.”
When in 2011, Joliet gave birth to a second son, born with congenital heart disease requiring two surgeries, she blamed herself.
“Was this the result of my anthrax shots or tuberculosis exposure? Am I the reason my son is in so much pain?” she asked.
But Joliet said she knew as a military wife, I had to embrace the suck and move on.
“I learned to stay strong for my boys but the pills and alcohol began to chip away and I found myself contemplating suicide and I could think of no one I knew who lived a life without drugs and alcohol, certainly not a soldier or a veteran,” she said. “I struggled to put down the things that made me feel connected to the world I had lost.”
Three years after returning to the States, Joliet found the courage to reach out to the Veterans Administration. She said she remembers calling and hanging up several times, but soon learned that she was not alone in her struggle and with the help of fellow veterans she met with a vocational rehab counselor who urged her to return to school. Joliet said it was a defining moment in her life.
In 2015 Joliet enrolled in Penn State University’s College of Education. After hearing her professor speak about the Collegiate Recovery Program on campus, she began to attend meetings and upon completing her first academic year, and volunteering at the CRC, she was asked to mentor to other veterans.
Days before graduating from Penn State University last fall with a 4.0, Joliet was honored by Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, as Penn State University’s 2017 Outstanding Adult Student.
Joliet is now working as a Collegiate Recovery Community Assistant Program Coordinator at Penn State University. Hoping to flip the treatment industry on its head, Joliet said she is tired of watching young people lose their lives to substance abuse disorder.
“We are standing in a time where everyone can agree something needs to change,” she said. “We should stop filling our jail cells with people who desperately need, and could be helped, with proper treatment.”
Joliet lives in University Park, Pa, with her husband, two sons, and their dog Vader.
“I am determined to wake up every day and dig in with true gratitude and grit!” she said.
Contact Shondalea Wollaston at communitarian@ mail.dccc.edu