Overcoming sexual assault: Airman battles dark past

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jamal Sutter
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
Faced with what she thought was her only option on one of her darkest days earlier this year, an Airman sat with a bottle of pills in hand prepared to make a life-altering decision -- suicide.

Battling a demon that had been haunting her after being drugged and sexually assaulted 15 years ago, Senior Airman Arlena Newson got to a point where she had no fight left and all her troubles seemed too vast to deal with.

"You feel like you're in a place where nobody, whoever they are, could help you get out of that dark spot," described the 23d Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment journeyman. "You just feel like you're all by yourself, you're in a corner and nobody really understands what's going on with you. I felt like that was my only way out."

Backtracking four years, the Chicago native arrived to Moody as a fresh face in the AFE community in March 2009. All seemed well as she quickly began showing promise by earning First Term Airmen Center superior performer and AFE Airman of the year in her first year on base.

As an AFE journeyman, her responsibilities are ensuring flight equipment is in perfect working order, ranging from parachute and harness inspections to making sure survival kits are serviceable.

While deployed to Afghanistan, she earned an Air Force Achievement Medal by helping with a clothes drive that gathered 900 coats for Afghan children and for raising funds for an Airman's memorial.

One of her defining moments as an Airman came in September 2011 when a pilot successfully ejected from an A-10C Thunderbolt II as the aircraft crashed in a non-residential area in Berlin, Ga. As details of the investigation surfaced, her flight discovered that not only was the parachute packed by Newson, but it was also the first parachute she ever packed.

"My first parachute that I packed was with [Staff] Sgt. Brandon Hatfield," She recalled. "He was the one showing me how to do everything, making sure I did everything right. And there was some difficulty with getting everything done right the first time. I would just make myself start over, because I felt like that was the only way to get it to stick."

Earning the respect of her peers and leaders, Newson gained additional responsibility by becoming a trainer, further making her mark on the mission. That, coupled with her positive personality, made her someone to rely on and a pleasure to work with, according to her flight commander.

"Something that has always impressed me about Arlena is no matter when I see her, she is always effervescent," said Capt. Matthew Cichowski, 75th Fighter Squadron A-10 pilot and 23d OSS AFE flight commander. "No matter where she goes, she always brightens up the room just by being consistently upbeat, and it has an effect on the shop."

Her work ethic and overall attitude while on duty made her seem like a squared-away Airman with no worries in the world. But what harbored beneath was her secret from the past that continued to eat away at her in the present.

After she was sexually assaulted, a family member told her to suppress her feelings and pretend like it didn't happen, rather than seek help.

Over time, Newson said she developed what she now knows as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety as she carried the lingering weight caused by the assault. Interacting with and being alone with males became uncomfortable experiences for her.

She didn't begin getting professional help until 2012, but it was too late. Holding in her feelings for so long caught up with her and became too much.

"It got to a point where it was so overwhelming," she explained. "In January, I couldn't control the feelings anymore, so there was an incident where I took a bottle of pills and chugged them down."

Luckily for her, a friend was near who helped get the pills out of her system. Facing the reality of it all, she decided to address her work section during a flight call and share her experience, which was a shock to most.

"Nobody really expected me to do that, because they think that I'm so together, and I have all my ducks in a row," she admitted. "People don't realize that people who seem like they're the most together are the ones falling apart at the seams."

Contrary to her initial beliefs and thinking her career would be hindered, Newson said she received a great deal of support from her leadership in the aftermath of her suicide attempt and after sharing her story. The support allowed her to seek further professional help and open up more about what she had gone through.

"I don't feel as much stress," she said. "I don't have to hide anything anymore, so I actually feel a lot better.

"I've become a lot closer with my family and a lot closer with the people I work with," she added. "I considered them family before but even more so now. I have no problem telling them about anything, because I don't want to go back to that place."

Since addressing her condition head on, Newson said she has gotten a lot better. She continues to be an AFE asset and is furthering her pursuit of a bachelor's degree in international relations, which she hopes to complete in August.

She is also contemplating becoming an Air Force attorney, which she believes will help her achieve her dream of becoming Secretary of State one day.

But with everything she has on her plate, one of her goals for the near future is to help others who've been through what she's experienced.

"Once I have a little bit more free time, if I have any time before the next deployment, I'm actually considering being an advocate and helping somebody else who thinks they have nowhere else to turn," she said.