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Strength in recovery: victim becomes advocate

Honor Guardsman poses

Staff Sgt. Brittany K. Johnson, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard unit training manager, poses for a photo at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C., April 13, 2018. Johnson survived a sexual assault in 2010 and is now studying to be a victim advocate, who is someone that provides victims resources, information, reporting options and medical needs in confidence under the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Michael S. Murphy)

Comfort light

A nightlight is shown on the desk of Staff Sgt. Brittany K. Johnson, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard unit training manager, at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C., April 13, 2018. Johnson said she still feels uncomfortable being in a dark room more than seven years after surviving a sexual assault. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Michael S. Murphy)

An Airman's story

Staff Sgt. Brittany K. Johnson, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard unit training manager, shows scars on her neck for a photo at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C., April 13, 2018. Johnson was cut in the throat and the abdomen with a switchblade during an attack in September 2010. She said she uses her scars as a way to show resiliency and strength for those dealing with similar trauma. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Michael S. Murphy)

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (AFNS) -- (Editor’s note: The following story includes references to an actual sexual assault that some readers, especially those who are sexual assault survivors themselves, may find disturbing.)

It was not the 21st birthday she was expecting. She got off of work at midnight, and her coworker asked her if she wanted to celebrate. Tired, but still wanting to have some fun, she agreed.

He ended up bringing over a bottle of tequila rose to her place—the black and pink bottle. She took a couple of sips of a drink he made, but didn’t really like the taste.The next thing Staff Sgt. Brittany K. Johnson remembered would change her life for years to come. On Sept. 22, 2010, Johnson was sexually assaulted.

She woke up to her attacker kissing her, and she was wearing only a T-shirt and underwear.

Coming out of a haze, she started questioning what he was doing and began pushing to get up. That’s when she felt the first cut.

“It didn’t register to me,” the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard unit training manager said, turning her head to the left and displaying a scar on her neck that followed her jawline. “I didn’t feel pain. I just felt the warm blood.”

He continued to attack her with a switchblade to try and end her life, provoking Johnson to do everything in her power to escape. It was all out war.

She began to call out, yelling “Help, help, he is trying to kill me,’” she said.

After attempting to smother her with a pillow, he eventually got her in a choke hold. Starting to lose consciousness, she struggled to understand her attacker’s motives.

“He was just babbling ‘You don’t love me. You never loved me,’” she said.

Johnson continued to fight back, but he stabbed her in the abdomen as she broke free. Johnson said she knew that she was in a bad situation, and did the only thing left she could do, play dead. After enough time passed, Johnson knew that she needed to get help. As she picked herself up, she watched as he fled.

“There was blood everywhere,” she said. “I took my fingers and touched underneath my neck. My fingers went into my neck.”

Johnson found her phone, and without thinking, called her supervisor, who rushed over while his wife called the police. As she waited, she began to think of her little girl, who luckily was in Georgia with her parents at the time.

“I was thinking of calling them so they could tell my daughter that I love her, but I didn’t want to wake them up in the middle of the night,” she said.

Her supervisor arrived and helped locate the ambulance, which was given the wrong address to pick her up. Emergency personnel did what they could, but she was eventually air transported to the nearest trauma center.

“I was only in the hospital for a week, but it was a long recovery after that,” Johnson said.

She felt the discomfort of having to repeat details of the attack to investigators and then again at the court-martial. But after the legal battle, and her attacker being convicted, her life wasn’t the same. She spent years fighting memories.

“You never know what will trigger you -- somebody you thought looked like them, the car they drove, or you saw somebody with the last name,” she said. “You just never knew when it was going to happen. I still can’t sleep in the dark.”

By seeing mental health professionals and processing her emotions, Johnson learned what triggered her and how to cope when the memories resurfaced. While deployed in 2013, she learned about the victim advocate program. She said she was curious about the position and started asking questions.

“I started getting involved and volunteering,” she said. “It evolved to how do I become a victim advocate?”

Heather Turner, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and Pentagon sexual assault response coordinator, said instructors and representatives were impressed with Johnson, recognizing how resilient she was given her circumstances, and her involvement with others.

“She is going to be a fantastic advocate,” Turner said. “She exudes sympathy and is very genuine.”

Johnson said she tries to be victims’ “rock of strength that they need to get through that time.” She said it means a lot to her to be able to help them, and to get them to a better, healthier place.

However, Johnson said she has not let her traumatic experiences hold her back. She is currently working on her master’s degree, has two daughters and is happily married. She said she wants to continue telling her story, so that she can help others for years to come.

“My scars tell my story,” she said. “Nobody can take that away from me.”


Those interested in becoming a victim advocate should contact your local sexual assault prevention and response program manager.

For mental health resources visit mentalhealth.gov and Military OneSource. The military crisis line is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8225. For sexual assault support, survivors can call the Department of Defense Safe Helpline at 877-995-5247.

And help put an end to sexual assault by remembering Green Dot training and the four steps a bystander can take in a critical situation - recognize the warning signs; understand the barriers to intervening; intervene by directing, delegating or distracting; and strengthen the protective factors associated with sexual assault.

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