Once-homeless vet fights back from tragedy

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala.  — Pamela Burrell was a soldier cooking for U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia when she got a life-changing phone call.

“They basically just called me into the chaplain’s office with another commander, higher-ranking person than myself, and explained to me I needed to call home.”

Her mother gave her the devastating news: Her 4-year-old daughter had been killed.

Burrell flew back home to Birmingham, Alabama, and learned the horrendous details.

“My daughter had been hit with a fist in her liver. Her liver had been split into two,” said Burrell. “She was thrown down the stairs and put into the bedroom in my apartment and left there, and she died there.”

The person she had entrusted to take care of her children while she was overseas had killed her daughter.

The single mother was traumatized. “I felt guilty about what happened. I felt guilty about leaving my kids, but I was a project mom, so going into the military was supposed to make things better for my family and myself,” said Burrell.

“So I buried her in three days, tried to make sure my other daughter was taken care of. Tried to make arrangements to be able to send money home to my mother for her. And I went back to Saudi to do what I had to do.”

Losing hope after daughter’s slaying

After being discharged from the Army, Burrell had to find a civilian job despite her grief. She became a corrections officer and, in a bizarre twist, was placed at the same prison as the person who took her daughter’s life. That sent her further over the edge.

“I had an episode in the prison with the person and I knew then I couldn’t continue to do this. This is going to be damaging for me. So I packed my daughter up, moved to Atlanta.”

Burrell left her house and her hometown behind. She couldn’t bear the reminders of her child at every turn and wanted to start a new life somewhere else.

“I had to leave, it was taking me through mental things. I had to go.”

The little money she had saved up didn’t go far. She couldn’t hold down a job. She had mental issues that sent her into a rage or made her want to isolate herself. She was in and out of shelters. Burrell ended up living on the streets with her child and had to make a very tough decision.

“A real mother would make sure the child is comfortable. So eventually I let my daughter stay with my friends who I met here, who were fortunate to be able to move out of the shelter and make sure she had food and clothing and everything she needed.”

‘I didn’t know if I was dead or alive’

The single mom, who graduated from Howard University with a culinary arts degree, spent more than a decade living first out of her van, in Atlanta parks, then in shelters. She worked odd jobs.

“Painting houses or doing Sheetrock or serving at a luncheon — just doing little things to keep money flowing.”

But she couldn’t keep them. “It took quite a while to realize I that had a mental problem — quite a while. I fought with it forever.”

One day, Burrell didn’t feel like struggling anymore.

She took drastic measures by “putting a gun to my head, pulling the trigger. And waking up in the hospital, and didn’t know if I was dead or alive.”

The fact that she survived the suicide attempt gave her a new perspective.

“I take it as a sign that, OK, there’s something that he needs me to do. That’s why I’m still here. I haven’t figured out what it is. But I’m pretty good at volunteering, so maybe that’s the calling. Maybe that’s what it was for.”

A calling indeed. Burrell found her way to the Welcome House, a supportive housing complex in downtown Atlanta.

“She walked in and said ‘OK, I’m here. How can I help?'” said Virginia Spencer, executive director of Action Ministries Atlanta.

The nonprofit, dedicated to fighting poverty and homelessness, helped get the VA benefits and therapy Burrell so desperately needed. An army psychiatrist diagnosed her with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I have been employed since then, but able to maintain that — no. Because the holidays come and I go through it. The birthdays come and I go through my little moments.”

Help for her friends

As Burrell got better through treatment and medication, she reached out to the veterans she had met on the streets.

“It hurt her heart, you could see it, with every bit of her,” Spencer said. “It hurt her to find she was safe but she was leaving her friends behind.”

“She has been on the streets for so long in Atlanta, that she knew a lot of them. You know, you find that a lot in the homeless community. They help each other out. They have no one but one another.”

There were almost 50,000 homeless veterans on the streets or in shelters in the United States when a count was done in January 2014, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Eight percent of those homeless veterans are women. Spencer says Burrell has brought in nearly two dozen veterans to get housing through the charity.

She also helps cook meals for struggling families every week and is constantly giving a kind word and advice to people living in the same situation she once was.

Burrell says it’s hard for some people to receive help.

“I used to come to this kitchen every day to get a meal. And I’m going to tell you, it really was difficult for me because I was proud. Too proud to admit I was going through a situation.”

Today Burrell lives in rent-assisted housing. She’s written a book about the death of her daughter and her struggle with homelessness, called “Don’t Cry for Me.”

She’s received two community volunteer awards this year.

“I see myself in an apartment some day soon in the future. Would love to have my own restaurant. Right now I just want to be here. I just want to be sane, healthy, just moving along in the process,” said Burrell.

“Most of us, if we went through our life falling apart, losing our home, losing our children, going through tremendous depression and hopelessness, we’re not the same people,” Spencer said. “What’s rare about Pam is she still has something in her spirit that’s loving, that’s giving and that wants to help.”

For more information on how you can help people like Pam Burrell, go to CNN.com/Impact or to the websites of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, National Alliance on Mental Illness or National Coalition for the Homeless.