ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. We feature the story of Master Sgt. Michelle Blake, who overcame tremendous adversity and has finally found the courage to tell her story.
It's often said that joining the military can change a person's life. For Master Sgt. Michelle Blake, flight chief for medical readiness with the 48th Medical Group, joining the Air Force not only changed hers, but it saved her life as well.
Blake has endured things in her life that most people cannot imagine--things that began at the young age of 4, when she was sexually abused by a family friend. She said that after the abuse was discovered, it wasn't dealt with. "I'm not sure if it was to hide it or to avoid embarrassment ... either way, it was kept quiet," she said.
Not being able to deal with what occurred to her as a child caused her to become a difficult teenager, she said. "All of the issues I had came to a head. My parents sent me to boarding school; I saw them twice a year. That's not enough time or room to express yourself to your family."
The daughter of a British father and an Argentinean mother, Blake attended boarding school in Malaysia. "When I was 15, I ran away back to England and I met the man who would become the father of my children," she said. "I met him in Ipswich, where I'm from. He was 25; I didn't see a problem with that at the time because he made me feel like a grown-up. I clung to him. Soon after, the abuse began... I didn't know where to go or who to ask for help, and I was ashamed that it was happening to me and I always hoped that every time he hurt me, that would be the last time."
They married when she was 18 and things went from bad to worse when they moved from England to Savannah, Ga. Life was less than perfect. "He didn't hold a job and we were living in shambles," she said. "We had little money, little income. And then I found out I was pregnant with our second child."
She described the abuse as "... both physical and emotional. Bruises heal and fade over time, but the emotional abuse ... that takes much, much longer. He broke me. But the one thing that kept my hope alive was my sons. I recall holding my youngest son one night and telling him 'I WILL get you out of here.'"
It was then that she decided to join the Air Force, to provide a better way of life for her children. After she arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas for basic military training, she said she began to notice her self confidence growing. "It was as if I had a voice for the first time in years," she recalled.
"Basic training was enlightening for me," she said. "I felt like I had an opinion for once, that there was more to life than what I had been doing with mine." She made the decision while at BMT to divorce her husband, however, she didn't tell him until she arrived at Sheppard AFB, Texas for technical training. As expected, he didn't take the news well.
"He showed up at Sheppard and he attacked me; I ran away from him ... people saw this, but nobody stepped up to help. I ended up running to my military training leader, and she locked me in her office. She was a tiny little woman, but she stood up to this bully; she was the first person to ever do that. The cops came, and he was escorted off the base. In the end, the state of Texas ended up pressing charges against him. He got two years probation, had to attend anger management courses and had a restraining ordered filed on him."
For Blake, that signaled the start of a new life for her and her sons. With the help of the Air Force's Family Advocacy programs, she began to regain her emotional strength. It has been a long journey for her, but she said that during the past 12 years, she has seen definite changes for the better in the way the Air Force educates its members about the importance of bystander intervention. "I'm not sure it was a phrase people even knew back then (in 1999) when this occurred. Today, people are way more knowledgeable and recognize the need to step in and stop things before they go from bad to worse."
Blake said she also found comfort in becoming a volunteer for the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator victims' advocate program, by being a sounding board for others who had gone through situations similar to hers. "I wanted to tell them that it is NOT their fault. That no matter how lonely or afraid they were, there is always somebody to listen, someone who wants to hear what you have to say."
Another positive that came from her involvement with the SARC program was meeting her husband.
"That is where I met my now husband, Tech. Sgt. Lucian Blake; he was a volunteer and I helped him on a high school awareness project. We became firm friends from the first day and have been together ever since. He has helped me a lot with my growth both emotionally and spiritually."
He also helped her find her voice. As a teenager, she found great joy in singing and music. However, when her life entered the turbulent times, she said she couldn't even bring herself to turn on the radio. "I stopped singing and listening to music. It didn't bring me joy anymore ... at that time nothing did." But, nearly 20 years later, she found the courage to raise her voice in church.
"My oldest son left for Lackland AFB last week, to begin his Air Force career," she said. "Our church had a special send off for him, and my farewell gift to my son was to get up and sing solo for the first time in two decades. It was a gift for him, but also for me," she said.
With that, although her life has not come full circle, she said she sees light now.
"I used to live in darkness, but now, I'm excited to get up in the morning each day to see what God has in store for me. He has protected me, and I can say for sure now that even if your voice is tiny, somebody will hear you."