DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. —
The 512th Airlift Wing kicked off the August Unit Training Assembly with a Mighty Oaks Foundation guest speaker who spoke about the importance of connection and taking accountability.
Wing members gathered at the base theater to hear John V. Davis, a U.S. Army veteran and retired police officer, tell his story of overcoming darkness. Colonel Douglas Stouffer, 512th AW commander, invited Davis to speak as part of the wing’s resiliency family day.
Mighty Oaks provides peer-to-peer resiliency programs aimed at helping military and first responder veterans cope with traumas experienced during their careers.
“Like most programs, it doesn’t work for everyone; and, that’s because change is hard,” Davis said. “It takes looking at yourself in the mirror and being accountable for your actions.
“It is easy for us to blame our actions on life’s hardships, the trauma we have endured, wrong actions done against us … We cling to it to justify our bad actions. Although sometimes we are victims, we can’t embrace that and accept it as who we are,” he said.
Davis said his goal was to provide hope to those in the audience, not just hope to move past hard times but hope that those suffering can move forward in life and thrive. He challenged attendees to live the life they truly want to live and be the people they want to be.
During his time in the Army, Davis said he lived by the four pillars of health — mental, physical, social and spiritual. He took care of his body, spent time with like-minded people and was active in church. He credited his ability to balance all four pillars with allowing him to be at peace even on dangerous missions.
After leaving the Army, Davis became a law enforcement officer in California. Although things started well, he said eventually the carnage and trauma of what he had experienced as both a solider and an officer compounded, and he began to feel bitter and angry.
“It wasn’t the violence that I couldn’t get out of my head, it was the death of innocence,” he said. “I felt helpless to do anything about it.”
He continued to struggle and said something changed within him in a negative way during an assignment regarding a young girl who had been assaulted. He said he became filled with hate but chose to shove down the feelings of darkness.
At this point, he said, he was no longer taking care of all four pillars.
During a separate police assignment, after chasing and apprehending a suspect on a rooftop, Davis said he stood there looking down from the roof and began having trouble breathing. All he felt was darkness and hate, he said, and didn’t understand what was happening.
After many years of enduring trauma and suffering, from experiencing sexual abuse as a child and violence as a solider and police officer, Davis said he knew something was wrong.
“Finally, my cup was full, and I ended up on that roof feeling like I was going to die,” he said.
Rather than reach out for help, said he decided to keep himself busy so he wouldn’t have to stop and feel any pain.
After another violent encounter with a suspect, he was placed on leave at work. He said he didn’t recognize himself anymore, so he decided to retire, get back in church and focus on his marriage and family. But, his life wasn’t quite on the upswing yet.
“The mistake I made when I retired was that I made behavioral changes,” he said. “I made no heart changes.”
Eventually, the bitterness and anger came back, and his marriage fell apart.
He started reflecting on his life to that point, angry at where he was. While sitting on a hill in California, said he realized something, “I had made myself a victim.”
“So, sitting on that hill, I did something I had never done in my life. I took accountability for my actions. I didn’t blame anything on anyone else. It was the day I became a man.”
Davis said what truly changed his life was getting involved with the Mighty Oaks Foundation and connecting with other people who had faced similar struggles.
“What connects us all is what’s inside us,” he said. “If you live in this world, you experience trauma.”
He has learned a lot throughout his life, he said, including how things are never as hopeless as they seem.
“No matter how dark things seem or what you have been through, there is hope,” he said. “The things that brought you down can be the things that drive you forward to be a better person.”
He encouraged everyone to make sure they are taking care of their four pillars and to reach out if they need help.
“If I help one person change their course from hopeless to hope, then everything I’ve had to endure in my life would be worth it,” he said.
Maj. Alex Lindsay, 512th AW comptroller, said the resiliency training was a great change of pace and a good opportunity to take a step back and connect with people rather than just focusing on work. He hopes the wing will host a similar event next year, he said.
Master Sgt. Tylisha Darling, 512th AW resiliency integrator, said taking the time to talk about struggles is of great importance.
“Our wing has lost several lives to suicide,” said Darling. “Col. Stouffer wanted to make a point for members to know that we see it, we recognize it; and we’re here. We wanted to take the time to show our wing members how much we care and how important this conversation is. We must have the uncomfortable conversations, so they are no longer uncomfortable for anyone in this wing.”