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Diamond in the rough: An Airman’s recovery from his haunted past

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Growing up, many of his childhood nights were spent staring through a gaping hole in his bedroom ceiling. He didn't know how it got there, but sometimes it served as a pleasant escape from the surrounding chaos. It gave access to the wide open Oklahoma sky and he positioned his mattress in the corner of the room to watch the stars crawl across it like snails.

He knew at some point the peacefulness would end. As darkness approached, the cockroaches would be out soon and the all-too-familiar sounds of their chomping jaws would be the ubiquitous chorus of the night. But even that was better than the worst nights.

"I was always more worried about getting wailed on for no reason at three or four o'clock in the morning," said Master Sgt. Vernon Davenport. "It happened once or twice a week."

There were too many of those nights, and the days weren't much different. He tried spending most of them doing normal kid things like hitting homemade ramps on his bicycle and laying pennies on the backyard railroad tracks. He learned quickly that if he slipped into the house unnoticed, he'd have a better chance of being left alone through the night.

He picked up a few other things along the way too, like how to roll a joint at four years old, how to chew tobacco, and that the burnt, bent spoons weren't to be used for eating.

Davenport describes his childhood, candidly and without pause, as "Lonely."

His mother, Martha, was a drug addict and was constantly loaded on whatever she could get her hands on. Men came and went with regularity, and the same went for houses. Moving from home to home was standard, and by ninth grade, Davenport switched schools six times.

He found normalcy only during summers, where he'd spend the few months with his grandparents, J.D. and Marie. It wasn't the ideal setting for a boy trying to find his way in life -- his grandma had double knee replacements that required almost constant assistance, and J.D. battled failing health from emphysema -- but Davenport made due. He pumped gas for minimum wage, and even with J.D.'s militant, no-nonsense attitude groomed from his days fighting in World War II and Korea, any time away from home was time well spent.

J.D. taught Davenport the tough way, but always made room for justice. If Davenport didn't know what a word meant, J.D. pointed him to a dictionary. If something broke, they'd head outside and get their knuckles dirty fixing it. He was a true guardian to Davenport, and when his grandpa succumbed to his smoking habit in 1995, Davenport was crushed. He'll never forget what those summers meant to him and the dread that followed with each of them ending.

The end of summer marked the beginning of school, which meant moving back in with Martha.

While his awkward, adolescent frame made him an easy target for bullies, school was an escape for Davenport. It offered a sense of belonging. He played the drums in band and stayed busy with sports to help stay hidden from home.

Martha was usually "zonked out on something" Davenport said, but she still always found ways to carry out her hidden aggressions on him. He was the oldest child of three and the only boy, which is why he assumes he took the brunt of the malice.

"Sometimes the school would call home about the bruises and burns on the backs of my legs," Davenport said. "But she always had an excuse. She'd use hangers, plastic combs, extension cords, cigarettes -- anything she could reach."

There was never any method to the madness; the severity just depended on the day. Davenport was treated more like a servant than a son, and on top of senseless beatings, Martha assigned him far from regular household chores.

If she wanted to bathe, it was his job to boil water on the stove and make trip after trip to fill the tub with warm water. One day, the 8-year-old's hands slipped and the results were scars that were more than just emotional. The searing water tore through his shoe and skin, causing second degree burns that left his foot permanently marred.

After he healed up, he was right back at it. Baths were only allowed every other day and everyone had to share the same water. When the bathtub was finally full after Davenport's labors, he was last in the pecking order to use it. At fifth in line, he refused to do anything but stand in the cold, filthy tub.

As much as he wanted to change things, he knew it might come at the cost of harming his two sisters. It was better that he just take the pain and punishment.

"My grandparents remember me trying to climb on my parents' laps and them just pushing me away," he said. "I was the ostracized child, for whatever reason. I guess I didn't fit in with them."

Over time, he adapted. He found a way to make it a game.

"All I could do was learn how not to cry in front of her so I could win the internal battle," he said. "It really pissed her off when I wouldn't cry."

He stopped calling her "Mom" along the way and only refers to her by first name. While winning against Martha felt good, it was only half the battle.

The man he called his father was a drunk. Jeff stood around six feet tall and pushed 400 pounds. Davenport dreaded hearing his footsteps coming down the hallway. He married Martha while she was pregnant with Davenport, and while he wasn't his biological father, he played the part in sparse attempts.

He was overly imposing and eventually became the reason Davenport found himself buried alone in the corner of his room, staring down the barrel of a loaded rifle.

Martha had run off with another man, and Jeff felt just enough responsibility to drag Davenport along as he fired up a relationship with a woman named Colleen. She served a handful of years as a pseudo-mother to Davenport but never really showed much interest. She had her own kids from a previous marriage, leaving him once again unclaimed and to the wayside.

One night while Colleen was away, Davenport was home alone with Jeff. He'd been obedient in relaying beer after beer to him as he barked commands while slouched in his recliner. When bedtime came, Jeff drunkenly coaxed the defenseless eighth-grader to his room and overpowered him with his massive frame.

"I wasn't big enough to do anything to stop it," Davenport said, stone-faced. "I froze. You know when they talk about people freezing during a rape? That happens."

When he came to his senses he stumbled to the bathroom, slammed the door, crumpled to the ground and cried. Only a two-inch thick door separated him from his surrounding hell. He never told anyone about that night. Like much of his life, he had no one to turn to.

Shortly after, his interest in life began to rapidly dissipate. The weight of what felt like a shameful secret weighed heavy on his mind and pushed him to a place he'd never been before.

"That's when I got a hold of a rifle and said 'I've had enough of this,'" Davenport said. He waited for a weekend when everyone was away from the home where he'd access the gun. He loaded it, flipped off the "safe" switch, bit down on the barrel and rested his thumb on the trigger.

"I don't know why I didn't do it," he said, shaking his head. "I had every intention to. I just never pulled the trigger."

He had hit rock bottom. Thankfully, the pick-me-up he needed was unexpectedly right around the corner.

That month, his middle school hosted a function featuring a motivational speaker. Davenport sat off to the side, detached and trapped in his own world. He remembers the days blending together in a fog, but in a single sentence, the speaker's words might've saved his life.

"He said, 'Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,'" Davenport remembers. "He talked about how someone always has it worse. I remember thinking, 'I don't know if anyone's got it worse,’ but I decided to take those words to heart and hold onto them."

Davenport found a way to push through. When life took its swings, he always swung back.

"You endure," Davenport said. "Even at your lowest of lows, when you're under the rock, you have to keep trudging along."

He pressed on through high school as a multiple sport letterman and worked his tail off in the classroom, earning all A’s on every report card. The little things still stung, like watching his buddies hop in cars with their families while he wheeled his bicycle to the street. But by now, he'd learned how to survive on his own. His arduous past conditioned him to face anything with stoicism, and his grandfather's discipline never left his side.

Before his junior year, he set his sights on the Air Force. He'd seen a video on medics and it was all he wanted to do.

"If I didn't join the military, I was going to run away," Davenport said. "There was no plan B."

Following graduation, his recruiter informed him he'd landed his dream job. He hopped in the car with him for the two hour drive to Oklahoma City and took his first airplane ride to San Antonio where he attended basic military training. In many ways, he was finally free.

Sixteen years later, he bounces around in his office with the enthusiasm of a lotto winner. As much as some might have tried to take it away, there's still a ton of kid left in him. He's now the first sergeant for the 35th Communications Squadron, a job specifically designed to help others.

He spent 14 years as a medic, where the service to others was similar at its core, even in the most grisly of situations.

"When you do eight deployments as a medic, you see a lot of nasty, horrible stuff," Davenport said. "It makes urgent care centers in the states look like a walk-in sick call. It's the most horrific thing you've ever seen in your life and you're helping these guys fight to survive. You can't describe it."

He said these grueling experiences have helped put his life and past in perspective. He's kept quiet about his past for nearly two decades. He didn't want pity for being dealt a bad hand in his childhood.

One thing that hit Davenport on a personal level was a video he watched of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III giving a speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Davenport said that Welsh talked about how every Airman mattered. How each member was a person rather than a number and how every Airman has a story to tell. The message convinced Davenport that his story, with hopes that it might help encourage others who have also reached dark, lonely places.

"I don't want people to treat me differently because of my past -- you love people for who they are, not what they've been through," he said. "I just hope my example can help that one person that's struggling to get through something."

Now, he lives the role. His existence revolves around selflessness.

"Sometimes I forget I'm the first sergeant with rank, and I end up being the guy that's just there for someone," Davenport said. "I need to personalize with my people. I need to get down and get in the trenches with them. I owe them my sincerity."

Through all the years of rejection and trying to fit in where he wasn't wanted, he's finally found his home. The Air Force let him be himself. He admits the recovery process is constant and he's accepted the fact that some things will never make sense to him. But he said he feels whole. Something he never thought possible for so many years.

"It's made me a stronger person," he said. "Sure it sucked, and I wish it could have been different, but there's no reason to dwell on it. It's all made me who I am today."