The Black Eye Campaign: a day with a bruise

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ally Bergman
  • 47th Operations Support Squadron

LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas--Before I even arrived at the medical group, I was already restructuring my day in order to avoid contact with people.

I couldn’t articulate exactly why I was preemptively avoiding interactions; even before the moulage was applied, I already decided to cut out several activities in my day. I imagined a day of typing away at my computer, holed up in the security of my office, where nobody could judge me. Little did I know the Air Force--as it tends to do--had other plans for me that day.

When I walked into the room where we’d be getting ready, I was so relieved to see one of my own troops in the room. When he approached me and let me know that he would be applying the moulage, I felt even greater relief.

I would end up reaching out to him multiple times throughout the day to give him updates on my experiences. Just knowing that I could share the day’s experiences and emotions with a fellow Airman and friend definitely eased my anxiety about what my flight and the rest of the base would think.

Once the moulage was applied, I was grateful for the early morning darkness so nobody could see the bruising around my eye on my walk from the clinic to the Aerospace Physiology building. Feeling quite uncomfortable, I didn’t want to have to explain my face to anybody. 

The instant I walked into my unit, before we even exchanged words, two of my Airmen looked at me with giant eyes. 

Immediately, they both asked me, “What happened, ma’am? Are you ok?” They were so concerned and forthcoming about their care, it made my heart well up with comfort. I felt so cared for, and noticed. When I handed them the green card and explained that I was volunteering to raise awareness about domestic violence, both of my Airmen looked instantly relieved. 

It sparked a heartfelt conversation about how they would defend me against anybody who harmed me. I truly, down to my core, felt reassured and protected. The response from the rest of my Airmen resonated the same theme--the outpouring of concern and care was so apparent, my heart filled with a sense of belonging. In those moments, I felt so grateful for the time that our flight has spent together, through the highs and lows. When it comes down to it, we would and do defend one another. In this sense, we are more of a family than I ever realized before.

After more than an hour instructing a large group of student pilots, whom I had instructed during their first week of Undergraduate Pilot Training several months earlier, I was disheartened that not a single student asked me what had happened. I received several long glances, only to be met with darting eyes when I tried to make eye contact. 

I felt ashamed, embarrassed even. What were the thoughts going through their heads? Were they thinking I fell off my bike? Were they thinking I was abused? And why didn’t anyone of them approach me--am I not an approachable person? 

After the class was done, I went to the front of the classroom and told the class, “I noticed some long stares from some of you. Let me explain what is going on with me today.” After giving the explanation, I handed out 13 yellow cards. These cards were given to those who noticed my injury, but had reservations about getting involved.

One student remarked, “Oh, so we failed the experiment.” I also realized that sometimes the authority gradient keeps us from having some really important but tough conversations. It’s easy to assume those who outrank us are superhuman and somehow impervious to the challenging realities that we all face, be it domestic violence, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal ideations, and so on. In this regard, volunteering in the Black Eye Campaign was a stark reminder to me that I need to check on my leadership. To have honest dialogue about how they are doing. To remain professional, absolutely, but also not be afraid to have vulnerable conversations in the spirit of compassion. Our leaders are human beings too. Their days are filled with tough decisions, family struggles and raw emotions--just like the rest of us. 

I had purchased some items over the weekend to send to our deployed members in the 47th Operations Support Squadron, and my plan was to drop them off at the front office on Monday morning. 

Now that it appeared I had an injury, I was indecisive on whether or not to drop off the items. I’d have to go to the front office where I was likely to run into my leadership.

Eventually, I decided ensuring these goodies got to our troops was more important than a few minutes of me feeling uncomfortable. 

I felt very nervous walking through the parking lot. I was worried I’d run into some buddies of my husband who’s a pilot there and that they might judge RJ or me negatively. I worried rumors would start if they didn’t take the time to approach me so I could give them a card. 

I found myself walking insanely fast from my car to the OSS front office. I was actually grateful to have a mask to help cover up some of the moulage. 

When I walked in, I was greeted by a fellow captain who I have known for two years and have a great rapport with. The captain made eye contact with me, but I could also sense an avoidance of looking directly at my bruising. When I brought the care package items to the designated area, a sergeant who I have known for a few months saw my face she immediately said, “Who do I need to beat up?”

I wanted to give her a hug as soon as she asked--she was so direct. It was refreshing, and made me feel strangely empowered. 

The Captain then spoke up and explained, “I wanted to ask you, but a couple years ago when I fell down some stairs and injured my face, I was so tired of people asking me what happened.” I thought it interesting her reasoning had nothing to do with her not caring. She was trying to preserve my dignity. Her past experiences, as with all of us, influence how we will respond to our current situation. One response isn’t wrong while one is right; we all have a reason for why we respond the way we do, even if we can’t articulate that reason. 

My last stop of the day was my off-base physical therapy appointment. Once my name was called, I followed the technician back to the equipment room, and put my bag down as usual. As soon as I made eye contact with Erica, my physical therapist, her eyes widened as she asked me, “Ally, what happened? Are you ok?” 

I was so overwhelmed with relief that she cared so much to set discomfort aside and ask me. Erica told me, “I wasn’t about to let you leave here today without finding out what happened.”

At times throughout the day, I worried that people would think I was a fraud, or that I was somehow mocking domestic violence victims by participating in the campaign. Above all, I wanted to make sure that nobody thought I was making light of the gravity of domestic violence. My own upbringing is riddled with the scars of verbal and physical discipline (largely due to cultural norms of growing up in a home deeply rooted in Korean customs). I feared others would see my participation as insensitive, upon discovering I was wearing make-up and my bruises were fake. However, during the  debrief of the experience the following day, Ms. Casey Molleson and Ms. Sabrina Pena made a valid point: that the campaign didn’t end with bystanders staring awkwardly and then abruptly leaving in avoidance. Instead, I was sparking a conversation through sharing of the green and yellow cards. Even those who didn’t personally receive a card were often in earshot of the conversation. This is how we spark change. Through the campaign, we were able to provide avenues for individuals to seek help and support. The ripple effect of the campaign will no doubt be felt for a long time. 

I saw the Black Eye Campaign as a very effective way of forcing us out of this false comfort zone: the assumption we, as military members, are somehow better equipped than the average civilian to take on life’s challenges and push through them. The fact is, we aren’t better equipped.

The Black Eye Campaign reaffirmed why I do what I do. We have to invest in our Airmen. We need to value them as people who at a very young age made the decision to give up the luxuries of civilian life for a cause greater than themselves. How can we not provide them a real support network during their darkest days and difficult times? The Black Eye Campaign is one example of a call for change. We all need to get uncomfortable because it’s the only way we will collectively grow and become stronger. 

The green cards mentioned throughout the article thanked onlookers for inquiring about the injury. The yellow cards were given to those who wanted to say something but didn’t know how or thought they should not say anything. Both offer the following resources for those who need help:

Laughlin Family Advocacy: 830-298-6422

Security Forces: 830-298-5100

Base Chapel: 830-298-5111

Sexual Assault & Prevention Representative Hotline: 830-298-7272

ValVerde Regional Medical Center: 830-775-8566

DOD Employee Civilian Assistance: 866-580-9078

U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233, 800-787-3224