Editor’s note: Due to the nature of family violence and dynamics, the Airman interviewed wished to remain anonymous while still sharing how Air Force Mental Health professionals helped him to overcome and thrive in his life.
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill -- As a little boy, the Airman watched, terrified, as his father shoved his mother against a wall, screaming in her face. The angry shouts became muffled as he cupped his tiny hands around his ears in an attempt to escape the horror.
But, for the longest time, he could not escape it.
“I memorized the veins on the back of his hand,” said the Airman. “It was either [getting slapped], or a belt, or a punch in the gut, or being pushed against the wall and yelled at.”
He said he would hide in his room in a tent of darkness, pulling the blinds closed to remind himself, “Don’t let the light in.”
At one point it got so bad that at the age of eight, his father pointed a gun at him.
“I woke up … and I saw two barrels aimed down at my face, and he said ‘What if I pulled the trigger?’ He pulled the trigger, and it clicked. Nothing was in it. I peed myself, and he told me it was my fault I peed.”
The abuse at his father’s hands was also emotional as his hateful words led to thoughts of “I’m worthless,” “I’m not needed,” and “I don’t matter.”
“Everything I did was wrong,” he said. “I was brainwashed. I was a no-good piece of crap.”
This made going through school with a reading disorder even harder. He said he didn’t learn to read until sixth grade because his eyes vibrated when he stared at anything for too long.
Thankfully, he did find some refuge from dedicated teachers who were willing to help him learn.
Finding a measure of success in graduating high school, the Airman said he decided to join the Air Force to inspire his little brother, who was also struggling with a reading disorder.
“I told him I was going to make it. I did it to show him if he puts his mind to it, he can accomplish anything he wants,” he said.
However, being in the Air Force created new challenges for the now 21-year-old, such as meeting people or having experiences that triggered those unpleasant memories from his past. Those triggers brought him back to a place where he felt worthless, so he would shut himself in his room and let negative thoughts consume him.
He knew he needed help, so he reached out to Mental Health.
“The experience at Mental Health was awesome,” he said. “I think everyone should go to Mental Health at least once. [I’m] not even saying that everyone has a problem -- just that it’s an eye-opening experience.”
He said he learned to be more understanding, which has given him a sense of peace within himself, and he learned about ways to make better connections with people. These tools gave him the resilience he needed and the ability to create a large and diverse group of friends within the dormitory environment.
For instance, he and his friends often have a movie night outside with just a projector and a sheet that acts as the screen. He also prides himself on being the go-to friend now, someone who is always there to listen and offer advice when he can.
This is something that Col. Scot Heathman, 375th Air Mobility Wing commander, said he hopes more Airmen will do moving forward after the Air Force’s recent Resilience Tactical Pause.
“I think it’s important to understand that there isn’t any one person who hasn’t gone through some level of adversity,” said Heathman. “We are human beings. We deal with a lot of pain and suffering, and we bring a lot into the Air Force. What I think we want to do here while we are serving in our Air Force is create an environment where we all feel comfortable actually talking with one another about what is going on in our lives so we can educate each other. Having resiliency is something we can work on in every facet of our lives.”
The Airman now focuses on improving his work skills. He often practices building miniature electrical systems in his free time because it is something he enjoys, but also because it helps him understand the larger systems he is required to work on when maintaining generators around base for his job.
Just as in his own life, he is capable of bringing light to a place that is filled with darkness.