When Charity Nickelson enlisted in the Marine Corps she thought it was the ticket to a brighter future and upward mobility. But since 2015, after eight years in the military and three deployments, the single mother has struggled to earn a consistent paycheck, only recently making progress towards a meaningful career.
Hard as it has been holding down a job — what she attributes to physical and mental injuries from the military — Nickelson relies solely on service-related disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
With her five-year-old son, London, and herself to care for, the monthly income from the VA, amounting to little more than $3,000, she stretches to the limit. There’s the mortgage on her home in Riverdale, Georgia, utility bills, and the day-to-day expenses that come with running a household.
Nickelson remains silenced by her experiences in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan that led to post-traumatic stress disorder. “It causes a lot of depression and anxiety,” she said. The mental trauma is but one factor in a string of conditions that in recent years crippled her employment opportunities.
Repetitive injuries while she was in the military, too, contribute to chronic back pain and inflammation in her joints, she explained, which limit her mobility. Nickelson, who is also diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, was only a year removed from the Marines when she left Le Cordon Bleu’s culinary arts program – finding it impossible to keep her mental and physical health in check.
At the time she was discharged, Nickelson was living in Atlanta. When culinary school didn’t pan out, she picked up a job at an Amazon warehouse. She served customers at Waffle House and drove for food delivery companies like Uber Eats and Grubhub. Despite her financial woes, Nickelson’s goal then, as it is now, was the same, however much the paycheck: keep a roof over her head.
Living on one income is hard enough, Nickelson acknowledged, then came the COVID-19 pandemic. “My income doesn’t change every year, so the income that I do have, I have to try to budget to make sure that it lasts longer.” By necessity, she became a master juggler — paying each month’s bills like the mortgage and auto insurance, and utilities. Over time, the balancing act left her with little savings.
Year after year, she kept each ball in motion — bills paid in full and on time — until this year, when one by one, they began falling to the floor.
In May, Nickelson found the Gary Sinise Foundation after searching on Google for veteran support organizations, explaining, “I was looking for resources that help veterans in time of hardship.” Several weeks passed after she applied for financial support when she learned that the foundation would pay her utility bills and two months of her mortgage. She also received Walmart gift cards.
“It lowered the balances that I did have, which made things that more manageable,” Nickelson said about her finances. “It’s helped my family overcome some definite hardships that we had to bear.”
Last month, Nickelson lost her mother, Iris Wilson. The matriarch of the family, who was 57 when she died, said Nickelson, “Taught me a lot, especially the fundamentals and basics of life.” Among the lessons Iris imparted on her daughter was dealing with life’s struggles which she said could be dealt with by being thankful for having “the basic necessities.”
“Before my mom passed, I always told her that I was going to build her a house.” While Nickelson won’t have the opportunity to fulfill that promise, she hopes to one day provide for her family and community in a similar vein. Gone is her pursuit of the culinary arts, replaced by what she foresees as a stable career, steady source of income from earning a degree in interior design and architecture.
Though Nickelson still relies on the VA for her monthly income, she’s relieved to have a roof over her head – one of life’s basic necessities.