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Leigh and K-9 Louie

Security Forces Airman

My journey began on a small family farm in rural southeastern Wisconsin. My Father was my best friend and my greatest role model. He was strong, determined and gave everything of himself to his’ family. He taught me the values of hard work, discipline and responsibility. He served over 25 years in the US Army and Wisconsin National Guard. His’ service to this country and the sacrifices he made inspired me in my late teenage years to join the military. I wanted to be like him and make my family proud. I joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard on April 1, 2006. It still is one of the most important and influential moments in my life and I am forever grateful that my Father inspired me to take the oath to serve my country.

At the time I joined, I was studying environmental law enforcement at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Naturally, I was adamant on becoming a Security Forces Airman. I wanted to choose a career field that challenged me physically, mentally and allowed me to push the limits of what “a girl” could do. I left for basic training in June of 2006 and headed for Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. The first night was my make-it-or-break-it moment. I lied awake in my bunk staring at the cold, dark ceiling wondering if I had made the right decision. I fought through those tears and made a promise to myself that night to be strong, courageous and accept the mission ahead of me. Over the course of 6 weeks, I became dorm chief (head of my training flight) and excelled as a leader and Airman. Physically it was demanding. Mentally it was exhausting. But it was so worth it. The transformation that occurred during those 6 weeks set the course for much of the rest of my life. Seeing my Father’s face at graduation made me proud to be his’ daughter. We shared a bond now that was mostly unspoken, but completely understood. There is no price for that.

I continued onto my specialty training which happened to be right at Lackland AFB. The Security Forces Training Squadron was my home for the next 13 weeks and I was underprepared for what came next. The training was physically demanding and the days were long. I learned the basic principles of being a Security Forces Airman. I soon learned that this career wasn’t solely about policing but rather encompassed flight line security, community policing and tactical war-time training for deployment to the Middle East. Tactical leadership and training was a part of the job I enjoyed the most until I decided to retrain into a specialty AFSC known as Combat Arms Training and Maintenance (CATM). I excelled at marksmanship and enjoyed being on the firing line, so naturally becoming a weapons instructor was a good fit for me. I was the first female CATM instructor that the 115 Security Forces Squadron ever had. I spent countless hours in the classroom and on the firing line with students preparing for deployment and completing annual training requirements. I strived to be a conduit for other women who felt intimidated or uneasy being in the presence of a firearm or a male instructor. It was a very special role that I filled within the core group of CATM instructors and I enjoyed every single minute of it. In 2009, I was injured during pre-deployment qualification training at Hardwoods Range in Wisconsin. I was instructing a student on the use of their M203 sighting system and within seconds, the student fired their weapon. I took a 40-mm grenade round to my right hand and almost lost 2 of my fingers that day. Thankfully, with the help of a plastic surgeon, my fingers are still attached to my body with limited function and feeling. I will never forget that moment as I carry the scars on my hands as a physical reminder of what happened that day. Within a few years after that incident, I decided to end my enlistment and focus forging my future as a professional forester in Northern Wisconsin.

Towards the end of my technical training at Lackland AFB, I was sexually assaulted and raped by two men. The most sacred parts of myself were taken away from me and I can never get them back. I never reported the incident due to fear of retaliation. It was my secret for 15 years. This moment profoundly impacted every aspect of my life in ways as it lied deep beneath the surface manifesting in ways I never thought possible. It became impossible to have a healthy relationship with a man. It was even more impossible to have a healthy relationship with myself. I dove into a life filled with obsessive, compulsive and destructive behaviors that endangered my well being and my sense of self. I used compulsive over exercising as a tool to numb out and escape. I restricted food in hopes of gaining control of my an out of control situation. I began using men to feel some sort of revenge for what those two men did to me that night in Texas. My behaviors were self-destructive and only when my marriage of 3 years ended in divorce did I realize that I had hit “rock bottom”. I ruined the life of another human being due to my inability to cope with such a traumatic experience in a health way. I vowed from that day forward to change the way I lived my life and I sought help. I have been working with mental health professionals since 2014 to deal with my depression, anxiety, disordered eating, obsessive compulsive disorder and most recently PTSD.

After 15 years I found the courage and strength to allow myself to be vulnerable enough to tell my story to my therapist. This is the most demanding, difficult but rewarding work I have ever done with a mental health provider. It is a daily struggle and my partner has become my battle buddy when combating PTSD. He and I are participating in a research program sponsored by the Veterans Administration. They are developing ways to help couples face PTSD together. The program has helped me realize how deep seeded this trauma is in my life and how it effects even the simplest daily interaction I have with people and the world around me. It has brought strength to my relationship with my partner as we work together to face my PTSD and learn ways to live with it. The work is never done. The memories are real. Every day is a new mountain to climb, but with the support I have around me, I know that life can be so much more. It’s a life worth living.

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