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Seeing Past Tomorrow: Senior Airman Trent Smith’s Road to Recovery from Sexual Assault

  • Published
  • By Courtesy article
  • IWI Program


Disclaimer: This story contains a graphic description of military combat 

“Airman Smith will live on in the periphery of society for the rest of his life,” a doctor reported. At that time, SrA Trent Smith (Ret.) had been living with an invisible wound for many years. While more difficult to see, invisible wounds can be just as painful as physical ones and often last much longer. Invisible wounds include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and other behavioral, cognitive, or emotional conditions, which can cripple even the strongest of warriors and go undetected for a long time. Even Smith disregarded his own trauma, which was later diagnosed as PTSD. 

But Smith’s ending was not what the doctor had predicted. He would not go on to live on the periphery of society but found a path to meaningful recovery the day he met his fellow Airmen through the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) program. Through AFW2, Smith found allies who were singularly motivated by a desire to see him gain freedom and healing. But his journey to recovery was anything but easy.   

In September 2011, Smith joined the Air Force to fulfill a life-long dream of becoming a pilot. “I’ve always loved aviation,” he says. However, Smith was not assigned to an aviation-related Air Force Specialty Code, but to Security Forces (SF) instead. While initially apprehensive, Smith grew to love Security Forces.  

“In so many ways I had the time of my life going through training. Security Forces, they say it’s like one big family, [and] it truly is. . . Without the people surrounding me I would have never made it that far,” Smith said while chuckling.  

In March 2012, Smith was stationed at Vogelweh Air Base in Germany. Leaving home for the first time, however, proved challenging.  

“I was still longing for my family. Being an 18-year-old kid and 5,000 miles away from home was kind of an ‘out there’ experience,” he recounts.  

To ease the transition of frequently moving to new duty locations, the Air Force assigns each Airman a Unit Sponsor. Smith’s sponsor was a well-liked and accomplished non-commissioned officer who served in a trusted position to the Commander. It came as a surprise to Smith when his sponsor invited him to his home for dinner that June. Initially, Smith was reluctant to accept the invitation, but felt more comfortable when the sponsor agreed that he could bring a friend. 

The affluence of the sponsor immediately struck Smith when he and his friend arrived at the house.  

“I didn’t have much growing up, so I was, in a lot of ways, enamored by someone who had that style and class,” Smith remembered.  

Smith could not have known it at the time, but his sponsor would abuse his own authority that night.  

It started when the sponsor began sending sexually explicit text messages to Smith while at the dinner table. Smith thought this was strange but brushed it off because he trusted the sponsor and considered the texts to be nothing more than an oddity. 

Following dinner, the three men sat in the living room to talk. Smith’s sponsor tried touching him and asked if he wanted to stay the night. Smith told his friend that he wanted to leave, but his friend took a phone call and went to another room. Smith was then left alone with a man who used his status and rank to coerce and manipulate him.  

That night, the sponsor sexually assaulted Smith. “I felt absolutely violated, obviously, but in a lot of ways I just felt so numb in that situation,” he said. Intimidated by the sponsor’s rank, Smith believed he was completely powerless to resist the coercion. 

In the weeks that followed, Smith started showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was self-isolating, detached, hypervigilant, and terrified of seeing his sponsor again. When he learned from a colleague that the sponsor had done this before to another Airman, he came forward and reported his own experience. He couldn’t stand the thought of another Airman being caught off-guard and taken advantage of. 

The investigation that followed resulted in an expedited transfer back to the United States for Smith, and an involuntary discharge for his sponsor. While Smith would never have to see the sponsor again, he felt irreparably damaged. In 2013, after three months of treatment at Travis Air Force Base, Smith was referred to the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) to determine whether he was fit to continue serving in the Air Force. As part of IDES, Smith was found to be unfit and was medically retired. 

Smith felt hopeless and alone. In March 2014, shortly after his 21st birthday, he began drinking heavily to cope with his trauma. Later that year, following yet another sexual assault, Smith attempted suicide.  

That same fall, Smith received a call from the AFW2 program. They asked Smith to attend an upcoming camp for wounded Airmen. It was there that he would ultimately find support and compassion, but he was not ready to receive it at the time. At first, Smith believed that the Air Force had shattered his ambitions, so he was not interested in participating. 

“To me, it was like they [the Air Force] said, ‘Airman Smith is the worst of the worst, and we need to get him out ASAP because we don’t know what to do with him.’” 

Smith also didn’t believe he was worthy of the AFW2 program, which he associated with images of veterans who were bandaged or had amputated limbs. Because he wasn’t physically disabled or had experienced combat, Smith initially rejected the AFW2 invitation.   

As the months passed, Smith’s condition did not improve. Finally, he reconsidered and went to an AFW2 sponsored camp in 2015 at Joint Base San Antonio. 

“I finally decided to go just because I didn’t feel like anything else in my life was going well,” Smith said. “I didn’t feel like I had anything going for me.” 

Now Smith says, “AFW2 saved my life.”  

He described an ocean of love that he felt from AFW2 that slowly drowned the traumatic experiences that came before. Community was the key to success and recovery for Smith. While he described his healing process as slow, he was adamant that he felt genuinely loved and cared for by the AFW2 community.  

Since 2015, Smith has been extremely involved with AFW2. He was an active adaptive athlete in the Warrior Games in both 2015 and 2016, a certified track and field coach in 2017, and was selected as Team Ambassador for the Warrior Games in 2018 at the Air Force Academy. Smith became a certified Program Ambassador in 2017 and continues to serve today.  

Smith’s road to recovery came through active participation with AFW2. Not only because of the opportunities and outlets it gave him, but because of the relationships the program provided him. His faith, too, played an equally significant role. 

 “During the trials and tribulations that [the assault] brought into my life. . . God was with me each step of the way, and eventually carried me through when I could no longer carry myself,” Smith explained.  

In 2017, Smith graduated from Portland Community College with an associate degree in general studies. In 2021, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a bachelor’s degree in Aviation Business Management. Today, he pursues an MBA in Aviation Management and recently completed his first semester of graduate school at Embry-Riddle. This summer, Smith was awarded a graduate fellowship position under campus chaplain Dr. David Keck and began working part-time at the Center for Faith and Spirituality on campus. He has also become a youth group leader at Crossroads Church in Daytona Beach and is a member of their worship team, where he plays trumpet.  

Smith encourages anyone struggling with trauma to surround themselves with people or things that give them reason for why they should carry on.    

“The thing that I needed to hear the most [was] how things looked down the road. I didn’t see anything past tomorrow in a lot of ways—it was literally just day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute that I was trying to stay alive. . . AFW2 was the main thing that put me on a better track,” Smith says. “And so, for me, the advice I would give to another Airman or person who has been in that situation, is finding that one person or that one thing that gives you a ‘why,’ a reason why you continue. . . and it’s not like it’s going to be an overnight thing. You have to really dig deep.”    

There are professionals available everywhere the military operates.  For 24/7 support of sexual assault survivors, contact the local Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) or the DoD Safe Helpline at 1-877-995-5247.  

Additionally, your local military chaplain, medical providers, and Special Victims’ Counsel are available to provide support or assistance. 

Other resources include the Military Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255), and a VA Military Sexual Trauma Coordinator.  Please visit www.resilience.af.mil/SAPR for additional resources.  

Editor’s Note: Invisible wounds are as real and severe as physical wounds. If left untreated invisible wounds can have negative impacts on an Airman’s or Guardian’s personal and professional life. It is important for Airmen and Guardians to recognize signs and symptoms of invisible wounds, in themselves and in their peers, to ensure a mentally strong, resilient, and lethal Total Force. The Department of the Air Force is committed to supporting those living with invisible wounds by providing a wide range of resources to support their recovery journey. To share your own stories of invisible wounds and/or learn about available resources visit www.MissionReadyForce.com