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Sexual assault survivor overcomes trauma

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Kelly Goonan
  • 332d Air Expeditionary Wing

Strength training doesn’t begin and end at the gym because it isn’t just a physical attribute. Following traumatic experiences, the emotional strength required to escape the darkest places in our minds requires a different kind of resilience that relies largely on mental fortitude.

Staff Sgt. Devin Flores, 332d Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron force protection escort, hopes that by telling his story of mental resiliency by overcoming sexual assault trauma from his childhood, other survivors will feel empowered to find strength and heal in their own way.

“I was nine years old when women in my life began to sexually assault me,” Flores recounted. “This went on, with multiple female assaulters, until I was 14.”

Sexual assault, an act in which one intentionally touches another person without that person’s consent, is a traumatic experience and can become mentally unbearable for the victim with long-term physical and psychological effects. According to the National Library of Medicine, people who experience sexual violence are highly likely to experience psychological and/or mental health problems as a result.

For five years, Flores endured the physical abuse from his assaulters but also emotional abuse from others close to him, which began to take a significant toll on his mental and physical health.

“I started struggling with my appetite, was becoming more depressed and riddled with anxiety. I began experiencing memory loss and became angry,” he explained. “To counter my emotions, I overworked myself to block out having to feel anything, and although I was extremely social in appearances, I never allowed anyone to really get to know me. I had a lot of acquaintances but no one truly close.”

It took 11 years and an enlistment in the U.S. Air Force for Flores to finally reach out for help.

“My mother didn’t believe in mental health,” he explained. “So, I never talked about it because I felt immense shame, confusion, and had insecurities because of her stance. No one knew what was going on. It wasn’t until after I made Below-The-Zone that I requested to go the Behavioral Health Optimization Program. At that moment, I finally felt secure in my life, in my service but I also realized that I really didn’t enjoy living. I knew something needed to change.”

The Behavioral Health Optimization Program is a primary care behavioral health program. Through BHOP, behavioral health personnel are integrated into primary care clinics to provide the right care. Air Force mental health clinics are critical to the health and readiness of beneficiaries and family members. Services include mental health assessment, education, consultation and treatment through a variety of evidence-based therapeutic exercises. This includes both individual and group therapy.

“At the root of any SA, the victim’s power, dignity, control, and peace have been ripped away, broken down, or shattered,” Staff Sgt. Kory Talbert, 332d AEW SAPR victim advocate said. “Coming forward to seek help, guidance, or mentorship, especially as a male where society almost mocks men for doing this, takes an extreme amount of courage and bravery.”

After BHOP, Flores was referred to a civilian provider where he went for regular therapy appointments until he was deployed in January.

“I made a lot of progress and now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” Flores said. “I learned to cope, work through my experiences in my own ways to include writing poetry, talking about my experiences and by helping others. On the bad days, I allow myself to lean on others to get through. I think everyone should take comfort in knowing they’re not the first nor will they be the last to struggle with mental health. Although everyone’s ‘why’ may be different, we can find a common point of understanding and help each other along the way. Nobody has to feel alone, worthless, or insecure. We are all perfectly imperfect and a work in progress. That’s what makes us human.”

All Service members deserve to work and live in a respectful, inclusive environment while serving our nation.

In the event of an emergency or crisis, please call 911. Other resources available include your chaplain, Sexual Assault Response team, Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647, or the Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.