Finding Light Through Darkness

An Airman recounts his recovery from sexual assault

Story by Senior Airman Dennis Sloan, Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Senior Airman Dennis Sloan walks on the flightline in search of a photo at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. A

Senior Airman Dennis Sloan walks on the flightline in search of a photo at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. A victim of sexual assault, Sloan’s passion for photography keeps him breathing and offers solace from his otherwise painful memories. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman George Goslin)

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[Editor’s note: Senior Airman Dennis Sloan is a dynamic, award-winning Air Force photographer. Along with his powerful story recounting his recovery from sexual abuse, we’ve included some of his recent work in the field of Air Force photography.]

Keeping a secret that defines you, that has shaped your life for nearly three years now and is sure to shape the rest, a secret that you go to sleep with every night and wake to every morning is sometimes hard to keep trapped inside.

I could probably go my entire life without revealing the sad truth that I was raped, but to stay silent is to allow individuals who prey upon the innocent to flourish.

Exactly one day after photographing Airmen proudly marching through the streets of a city receiving joyous responses and unanimous support for their sacrifice of service to the United States of America, I was sexually assaulted by a male Airman.

That secret is one that took me nearly a year to even reveal to my mother, and I have yet to reveal to the majority of my family or friends. The Airmen I serve alongside everyday have no idea that I’m a victim of sexual assault, until now.

Some people may wonder why I would reveal my story in such a public forum, and the truth is I hope this story reaches a person, a son, a friend or even an Airman who has been sexually assaulted, and it allows them some peace in knowing they are not alone no matter how dark their day may seem.

Master Sgt. Tim Thornton walks towards arc welding protection drapes at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. The red drapes protect individuals not wearing a welding shield from taking in the intense light emitted during welding produces.

Master Sgt. Tim Thornton walks towards arc welding protection drapes at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. The red drapes protect individuals not wearing a welding shield from taking in the intense light emitted during welding produces. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Dennis Sloan)

In my case, I reported my assault within a matter of days because I knew if I buried the truth it would overcome me and the result would be fatal. I initially filed a restricted report, but once I gained strength and understanding of my situation, I then filed an unrestricted report.

After being sexually assaulted, many victims, including myself, are very confused about the situation and blame themselves for what happened. Large amounts of alcohol, isolation and subduing played a huge factor in my sexual assault. You can imagine waking to this reality the next morning as if it were a nightmare, but this nightmare was real and would continue to play over and over again in my head for months following the assault.

Filing an unrestricted report opened me up to a world of re-victimization. The Office of Special Investigations called me within hours of filing my unrestricted report to conduct an interview. The interview consisted of me recounting my sexual assault down to the minutest detail. I understood the interview must be done to gather evidence to potentially bring the perpetrator to justice, but no matter how many people warned me of that interview, I could never have been prepared.

I am not discouraging victims from filing an unrestricted report, but they shouldn’t walk in blindly. Reliving one’s experience is painful. Yet, by involving law enforcement, you just might prevent another sexual assault.

The effects of my sexual assault, filing an unrestricted report and knowing the perpetrator was still at the base I lived on started to pour into my work. Less than six months prior to my assault I was chosen by my office to sit in front of the Below the Zone board with the intent to achieve the rank of senior airman well before others because of my dedication to service and my craft. You can imagine how strange it may seem to leadership that an Airman who was considered one of the best in an office could all of a sudden change.

Cargo is loaded onto a West Virginia Air National Guard C-5 Galaxy from Martinsburg, W. Va., at Joint Base Charleston, S.C.

Cargo is loaded onto a West Virginia Air National Guard C-5 Galaxy from Martinsburg, W. Va., at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. The cargo was used for Operation Enduring Freedom. The C-5 is one of the largest aircraft in the world and the largest airlifter in the Air Force inventory. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Dennis Sloan)

There was a large amount of misunderstanding between me and my office. I was not willing to reveal my situation to them, and, in return, it left them with little knowledge of why I was not performing as well, coming in late and almost not there, in a sense, even when I was.

I struggled to find sleep every night and even when I did, I would wake hourly from a dream relating to my sexual assault. When I would try and do my job, my mind was always replaying the incident over and over again. I became isolated and constantly worried people knew about my situation, which caused me a great deal of anxiety.

I cannot lie, I did think about suicide for some time, but it never came to that thankfully.

One day, while photographing the flying squadron at my base, I had what I call a moment of clarity. I spent the majority of the day photographing Airmen fixing engines, marshalling aircraft and everything in-between. It wasn’t until I returned to my dorm at night that I realized I had not thought once about my sexual assault or even the struggles in my office. I was free for a day.

That day didn’t last very long though. Once I laid my head down that night, all of it came roaring back into my brain. A short amount of relief, but still it was a silence I had not heard in so long. That night I decided if I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live, but knew I could not take my own life, that I would give myself to the one thing that silenced it all … photography.

I started slow and when I arrived at my new base, thanks to a humanitarian transfer, I still had some hurdles to overcome, but through counseling and a steady diet of photography, I was moving forward for the first time in a long time. Even now, years after being sexually assaulted and dealing with being misunderstood, every time I raise the camera up to my right eye, I feel peace, I hear nothing and see everything.

Airman 1st Class William Williams grinds a piece of steel tube at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. The sheet metal is used to simulate steel work on a C-17 Globemaster III wing.

Airman 1st Class William Williams grinds a piece of steel tube at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. The sheet metal is used to simulate steel work on a C-17 Globemaster III wing. Williams is an aircraft metals technology journeyman assigned to the 437th Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Dennis Sloan)

Life is definitely different for me now. When I devoted my life to photography nearly three years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant and still don’t, but photography keeps me breathing, keeps me feeling, keeps me alive. I constantly search for the light that brings silence to my pain.

Being a victim of sexual assault is not something that is easily described, but to put it into perspective, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder not only from the assault, but the prolonged exposure to a hostile environment at my base that plagues me to this day. I still struggle to find sleep, struggle to communicate with others and most of all I struggle with the idea of sharing my life with another person.

The person who raped me had no regard for how the assault would affect me. The crime he committed has little to do with passion and a lot to do with control, manipulation and taking power away from someone. Through this commentary I hope to regain some of that power and control he stripped from me and give other victims of sexual assault some as well.

Tech. Sgt. Andrew Gravett walks along the top of a C-17 Globemaster III as he performs a routine maintenance check of the aircraft at Joint Base Charleston, S.C.

Tech. Sgt. Andrew Gravett walks along the top of a C-17 Globemaster III as he performs a routine maintenance check of the aircraft at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. The first C-17 to enter the Air Force’s inventory arrived at Charleston Air Force Base in June 1993. The C-17 is capable of rapid strategic delivery of troops and all types of cargo to main operating bases or directly to forward bases in the deployment area. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Dennis Sloan)

Very few men report being sexually assaulted, and I believe that is because they fear how society will view them, how they’ll be judged and how they even may be considered less of a man. So I ask everyone who reads this: I am a male and I was sexually assaulted — do you think less of me?

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7 thoughts on “Finding Light Through Darkness

  1. This is so heart wrenching to read. I am so happy that you are finding inner peace.

  2. Dear Senior Airman Dennis Sloan I absolutely do not think less of you in fact I think so much more highly of you – it took a lot of courage for you to put this life altering event out into the public. Though I have never been sexually assaulted I have been physically assaulted, years ago, and I am confident that you too will heal and find inner peace again. You are an amazing man.

  3. Thank you for having the courage to come forward. No one should be against you, others should thank you for identifying a criminal in our midst. I too am an Air Force Veteran. I witnessed much while I was in. Sexual rape should never be tolerated. I was harassed by a SMSGT while TDY in Saudi, I was made out to be the bad person. He got away with it. You deserve accolades. You have my support.

  4. SRA Dennis Sloan…I am so proud of you…Keep getting better and I wish you a world of happiness in the future…you deserve it. I am proud to serve with you.