Sept. 30, 2022

Letters to Lackland: A story about hope, resiliency, and overcoming the things that broke me. By C.R. Brislin

Letters to Lackland: A story about hope, resiliency, and overcoming the things that broke me. By C.R. Brislin

Disclaimer: This article is individually owned and a unique and personal story from Cailey Brislin's perspective. The article doesn’t necessarily represent Air Force positions, strategies or opinions. Additionally, the intent is to educate, inspire, and offer support. It does not aim to identify a specific person and/or work center and many of the specific details have been left out for privacy reasons.

In April of 2020, I created Letters to Lackland. The goal behind the program was to make sure in some way that no trainee or airman was alone in their journey to a new life. It served as a way to provide mentorship and support in what could be considered the scariest yet most exciting time of their lives. When I created the program, I had no idea the events I was about to face, just a few weeks later, would change everything for me.

During Memorial Day weekend 2020, I was sexually assaulted at my
first duty station. I think the worst part was that it was someone I knew.
The others present that night did nothing to stop it. I was truly alone. I
had my own back and a strong fight in my body but even that wasn’t
enough to stop it. At the age of 18 years, just shy of a year in the Air Force, all my innocence and faith was gone. It was stolen from me and I still haven’t been able to get it back two years later.

For the first time in my life, I shut everyone out - completely. I was ashamed, scared, and more than anything…sad. I told my sister Jessica about what happened but she was it. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom and dad that something they had tried to protect me from for 17 years happened to me while their child had left home. I was supposed to be safe and protected. I alone carried the weight of that night on my shoulders, and it was HEAVY.

As that summer went on, I began drinking a lot. When I drank, I felt I could breathe again. I would drink just to be able to stop thinking. Alcohol became a relief as it would fog my brain just enough to bring calmness into my very chaotic mind. Eventually, I reached a dangerous point where I would blackout often as a result of my drinking. I knew how bad it was for me, but at the time I didn’t care because I felt so lost. I became increasingly more reckless with my decisions. September 19th of 2020 was a Saturday and typically my Saturdays were spent drinking. That particular weekend was no different from any of the others.

I drove around with a friend and got some breakfast tacos at a popular Mexican restaurant in Del Rio. I was “day drinking” that afternoon but not enough to be drunk as my tolerance was high. That evening and into the early hours of September 20th, I went to a kickback with some male airmen I considered friends and a guy I was dating. We got into a fight, and he left me there alone and drunk with said group of male airmen. These were the same men who refused to help me during the Memorial Day weekend when I was first assaulted. And I was the only
female present.

That night upon bringing up my sexual assault to the same men who wouldn’t stop it months earlier, I was physically attacked by them. For a fleeting moment I remembered how my mom had once said that if I was ever in a physically-threatening situation, I need to fight my way out and get away. That’s exactly what I tried to do. I attempted to open
or kick out the window of the bedroom they had me locked in. They pulled me back in and I kept screaming for help, but no one came. No one could hear me outside that apartment. That was the most alone I had ever felt.

I had thrown my dead cell phone at the man blocking the door and pulled it open against his resistance. Barefoot with no ID, keys, or
phone - I did the only thing I could think of at the time: Run. I ran from the apartments as fast as I could. The US-90 highway was right in front of me, and I waived down a car heading my direction. A guy pulled up
and saw my torn shirt and my terrified expression and he asked me if I was okay.

I was not, but he told me to get in and that he was going to go get his wife at their apartment. His wife walked out and immediately was concerned for me and tried her best to console me. I never got her
name, but she saved my life that night. I kept asking them to take me to the base immediately thinking that my then boyfriend was there and that I would be safe from his friends. Going through the gate the couple
told the gate guards how they had found me and afterwards made me get out of the car to sit in the gate shack. Emotionally, I was all over the place and shaken up trying to tell them what happened. I grabbed the
gate guard’s arm and refused to let go. He and the other guards on duty did their best to calm me down until the local PD showed up with an ambulance.

I was breathalyzed and blew a .178 that night. Hours later I was still at
a .151. I was taken to the hospital and questioned by OSI and local PD. I
must’ve said something pertaining to my injuries because the base
Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) showed up. I was sent to
the hospital in San Antonio the following day. I decided not to speak
about my past sexual assault at that time because quite frankly, I was scared. That night has haunted me since. I was alone. Alone in every respect. I had no one and on top of that, no one had me when I needed
it the most.

In the week following I was reprimanded by my unit commander for underage drinking. NONE of the males responsible for the physical assault got any punishment for putting their hands on me or for drinking underage themselves. Not one of them. By the beginning of October, I was placed in the mandatory Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment (ADAPT) program. I received eight months of treatment. However, on New Year’s Eve 2020 I had my first relapse. I went to a party, and thought I was strong enough to finally handle my alcohol. I found out that night I was very wrong. My tolerance was different and after a few shots of tequila and some twisted tea, I was done. I blacked
out and this moment of vulnerability opened up past wounds and trauma.

I was informed that while blacked out, my male friends were trying to put me to bed and I flipped out. Physically, I was at my friend’s house on New Year’s, but mentally it was still September and I was back at that damned apartment. I began calling my friends the name of the men that hurt me. That was my first post-traumatic stress episode. I
could not sleep for days, and I would have really bad nightmares to the point I’d wake up screaming or crying. I was diagnosed with insomnia shortly thereafter. Despite my up-hill battle, I continued the alcohol treatment program.

During those months I was recovering I was targeted by that same group of males. I was being harassed online and even after reporting them the harassment never stopped. The bullying wasn’t confined to
the internet and I encountered them pouring taco bell sauce onto my car and hanging trash off my dorm room door.

Rumors were ramped up and it was almost impossible getting to make friends with new airmen because my attackers would always get to them first with their smear campaign. I never got to show anyone who I really was or tell them what really happened. I recorded my Letters to Lackland episode on the HeroFront podcast and upon release, the same group of men were making nasty comments about it. Anything pertaining to me they thought was fair game. I began self-isolating again.

The only friend I had was a coworker who had been sexually assaulted by one of the same men who beat me up. We bonded over that and protected each other.

There was a point in April 2021, where I began to turn over a new leaf. I had heard from other women who had been sexually assaulted by the same group of men but were too scared to say anything for fear of retaliation. I had felt the same way.

As the bullying got worse, I figured there wasn’t much more they could do to me. They had already taken my innocence, my peace of mind, and my body. Ultimately, they couldn’t take my truth away. I decided it was time to make an unrestricted report with the SARC. I arrived with burning passion in my heart hoping in some way I could take my life
back and get justice for all the other female airmen who too hurt to seek justice. I was moved to a new assignment in New Mexico after my Investigation began. Although the move helped, I did not have high hopes for the investigation.

After all, the only witnesses to the crime were the same men who committed the crime. To make matters worse, the man who sexually
assaulted me also suffered no repercussions as a result of his actions against me. Ultimately, there would be no justice or action taken against these men.

I was extremely distraught and the lack of any action against those who had done wrong definitely changed my world-view forever. Yet
somehow, someway, I made it through all the bad times. I’m still pretty emotional about it but also proud of myself because 20-year-old me did something the 18-year-old me couldn’t. I stood up for myself.

After the negative finding of my case I immediately took it to congress for an unbiased look, but no matter how many times I reach out, no one responds. I have been battling an internal sadness that I can’t quite put into words and everything comes and goes in waves. The 2-year anniversary of my sexual assault was two weeks ago from the time I’m writing this. I made it through the day but it’s hard. There is a piece of me that I cannot get back. The amount of heartache and pain I suffered was sickening. But I’m still here…and I’m still standing.

Throughout every situation and every moment in the last two years, no matter how bad it got, I continued the Letters to Lackland program and wrote to my airmen and trainees in Basic Military Training. Although I was extremely alone, I made a promise to this program “No trainee would have to feel alone.” I did everything in my power to be a positive source of communication and mentorship for them. They deserve that. Letters to Lackland gave me an outlet to shine and a way to pay it forward to help these young airmen begin on the right path and feel good about what they’re doing.

I want them to know that they don’t have to be alone in this and that there’s a team of 261 Letters to Lackland mentors for them through the good times and the bad.

To date, I have not publicly shared my story. Two years later and I am finally ready to speak my truth and tell anyone reading that they don’t have to do it alone. You have me.                     - CR Brislin