Airman's recovery driven by social resilience
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- (This article is part of a series featuring 35th Fighter Wing Airmen who exemplify the four pillars of Comprehensive Airmen Fitness--mental, physical, social and spiritual. During Resilient Airman Day Oct. 2, these Airmen shared their story in front of more than 250 people at Misawa Air Base, Japan.)
"From the beginning, I knew it was wrong," he said. "But he told me it was what friends do."
Growing up as the only introvert in a family of extroverts, Staff Sgt. Robert Smith, 35th Medical Support Squadron NCO in charge of aeromedical evacuation section, was drawn to people similar to him. The first friend he met lived a few doors down from him and was a couple years older than his eight-year-old self.
"It started with hanging out and doing things normal boys do like rough-housing and playing games," he said.
Three months into the deceptive friendship, Smith's family noticed he was sensitive to physical contact and was becoming more withdrawn.
The friend he trusted had sexually abused him.
"My parents didn't know exactly what happened to me until I was an adult, but at the time they noticed I was acting different and had a new friend," he said.
His parents made the decision to separate him from the situation, although it was too late to save him from the emotional scars.
"I felt ashamed about the situation," he said. "I didn't trust people for a long time and have subconsciously carried this burden throughout my life."
The effects of the abuse crept into Smith's future relationships and ability to enjoy life. Many sports were not an option for him because of the physical contact.
"If someone were to grab my neck or arms I would freak out because of what happened to me," he said.
The mental toll it took led Smith to believe he was inherently socially awkward and unable to function in group situations.
"Without considering what had happened to me as a child, I didn't speak out and instead kept to myself even more," he said.
As Smith retreated further into his shell, he was bombarded with stressors during his junior and senior years of high school.
He chose to get a job instead of play basketball during the summer, and was subsequently cut from the team.
"I loved playing basketball, but at the time my father was teaching me the value of a dollar, in which I had to work for clothes and games I wanted," he said.
Around the same time Smith was cut from the basketball team, misfortune followed as his girlfriend broke up with him and he lost his job.
Smith was disheartened by the loss of his dream to play in college and other setbacks, and couldn't receive motivation to stay positive from his father, who was on a deployment at the time, or his mother, who lived away from him.
"It was conflict after conflict that made me feel like I didn't know what to do with my life," he said. "I fell into a state of depression and didn't want to go anywhere the summer before my senior year."
Pulling him out of the depths of depression was his stepmother, Vickie Smith, with the help of his brothers.
"It was important for me to listen to him about the incident and let him know how proud I was of him for sharing it," Vickie said. "He showed strength and courage doing so."
To Smith, the support was life-changing.
"They helped me realize it wasn't the end of the world for me," he said. "Showing me love helped me become resilient and progress further on."
Smith was introduced to 4-H, a global network of youth organizations, during the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. Seeing the comradery between members of the 4-H club and the volunteering they were involved in sparked Smith's interest.
"The 4-H club put me in situations where I felt success and was part of something other than sports," he said.
Smith progressed to win youth of the year for the organization and began to trust people - some becoming true friends.
"My junior and senior years were the biggest turning points that made me wake up and acknowledge my inability to connect with others," he said. "Since then I've been able to progress and mature more easily than in high school."
Upon joining the Air Force, Smith had the mindset of pushing himself to try new things.
"I was stationed at Travis Air Force Base, Nevada, and was part of six or seven private organizations," he said. "I often went outside my comfort zone."
His activities ranged from serving as the president of the Airmen Committed to Excellence organization to being a Boy Scouts troop cub master.
Before being stationed at Travis AFB, Smith was terrified to fail because he felt like he failed himself as a child. Instead of shying away from his fear, he faced it head on by explicitly placing himself in tough situations to determine his limits.
"I used to be afraid of public speaking, but I went from being able to interact with only one or two people in a room, to speaking to theaters full of people," he said.
Since being abused as a child, Smith has learned the importance of surrounding himself with a supportive social group.
"The people you associate with are extremely important because you emulate them as well as the environment you're in," he said. "I encircle myself with people who are striving for self-improvement, or are in a position I want to be in."
He hopes his story encourages others to keep pushing through their own struggles. Knowing another person may be going through something similar inspires people to speak about the subject.
"Understand it's a season of your life you can make it through," he said. "You have to challenge yourself to not let anything hold you back. I let go of the situation so I could figure out who I was as a person--now everything feels limitless."
Smith proved a traumatic childhood experience couldn't define his future.
"You have to forgive yourself as a person to move forward," Smith said.