by Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn
35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
5/29/2015 - MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Growing
up, many of his childhood nights were spent staring through a gaping
hole in his bedroom ceiling. He didn't know how it got there, but
sometimes it served as a pleasant escape from the surrounding chaos. It
gave access to the wide open Oklahoma sky and he positioned his mattress
in the corner of the room to watch the stars crawl across it like
He knew at some point the peacefulness would end. As darkness
approached, the cockroaches would be out soon and the all-too-familiar
sounds of their chomping jaws would be the ubiquitous chorus of the
night. But even that was better than the worst nights.
"I was always more worried about getting wailed on for no reason at
three or four o'clock in the morning," said Master Sgt. Vernon
Davenport. "It happened once or twice a week."
There were too many of those nights, and the days weren't much
different. He tried spending most of them doing normal kid things like
hitting homemade ramps on his bicycle and laying pennies on the backyard
railroad tracks. He learned quickly that if he slipped into the house
unnoticed, he'd have a better chance of being left alone through the
He picked up a few other things along the way too, like how to roll a
joint at four years old, how to chew tobacco, and that the burnt, bent
spoons weren't to be used for eating.
Davenport describes his childhood candidly and without pause: "Lonely."
His mother, Martha, was a drug addict and was constantly loaded on
whatever she could get her hands on. Men came and went with regularity,
and the same went for houses. Moving from home to home was standard, and
by ninth grade, Davenport switched schools six times.
He found normalcy only during summers, where he'd spend the few months
with his grandparents, J.D. and Marie. It wasn't the ideal setting for a
boy trying to find his way in life - his grandma had double knee
replacements that required almost constant assistance and J.D. battled
failing health from emphysema - but Davenport made due. He pumped gas
for minimum wage and any time away from home was time well spent, even
with J.D.'s militant, no-nonsense attitude groomed from his days
fighting in World War II and Korea.
J.D. taught Davenport the tough way, but always made room for justice.
If Davenport didn't know what a word meant, J.D. pointed him to a
dictionary. If something broke, they'd head outside and get their
knuckles dirty fixing it. He was a true guardian to Davenport, and when
his grandpa succumbed to his smoking habit in 1995, Davenport was
crushed. He'll never forget what those summers meant to him and the
dread that followed with each of them ending.
The end of summer marked the beginning of school, which meant moving back in with Martha.
While his awkward, adolescent frame made him an easy target for bullies,
school was an escape for Davenport. It offered a sense of belonging,
and he played the drums in band and stayed busy with sports to help stay
hidden from home.
Martha was usually "zonked out on something" Davenport said, but she
still always found ways to carry out her hidden aggressions on him. He
was the oldest child of three and the only boy, which is why he assumes
he took the brunt of the malice.
"Sometimes the school would call home about the bruises and burns on the
backs of my legs," Davenport said. "But she always had an excuse. She'd
use hangers, plastic combs, extension cords, cigarettes - anything she
There was never any method to the madness; the severity just depended on
the day. Davenport was treated more like a servant than a son, and on
top of senseless beatings, Martha assigned him far from regular
If she wanted to bathe, it was his job to boil water on the stove and
make trip after trip to fill the tub with warm water. When the
8-year-old's hands slipped one day, the results were scars that were
more than just emotional. The searing water tore through his shoe and
skin, causing second degree burns that left his foot permanently marred.
After he healed up, he was right back at it. Baths were only allowed
every other day, and everyone had to share the same water. When the
bathtub was finally full after Davenport's labors, he was last in the
pecking order to use it. At fifth in line, he refused to do anything but
stand in the cold, filthy tub. As much as he wanted to change things,
he knew it might come at the cost of harming his two sisters. It was
better that he just take the pain and punishment.
"My grandparents remember me trying to climb on my parents' laps and
them just pushing me away," he said. "I was the ostracized child, for
whatever reason. I guess I didn't fit in with them."
Over time, he adapted. He found a way to make it a game.
"All I could do was learn how not to cry in front of her so I could win
the internal battle," he said. "It really pissed her off when I wouldn't
He stopped calling her "Mom" along the way and only refers to her by
first name. While winning against Martha felt good, it was only half the
The man he called his father was a drunk. Jeff stood around six feet
tall and pushed 400 pounds. Davenport dreaded hearing his footsteps
coming down the hallway. He married Martha while she was pregnant with
Davenport, and while he wasn't his biological father, he played the part
in sparse attempts.
He was overly imposing and eventually became the reason Davenport found
himself buried alone in the corner of his room, staring down the barrel
of a loaded rifle.
Martha had run off with another man, and Jeff felt just enough
responsibility to drag Davenport along as he fired up a relationship
with a woman named Colleen. She served a handful of years as a
pseudo-mother to Davenport but never really showed much interest; she
had her own kids from a previous marriage, leaving him once again
unclaimed and to the wayside.
One night while Colleen was away, Davenport was home alone with Jeff.
He'd been obedient in relaying beer after beer to him as he barked
commands while slouched in his recliner. When bedtime came, Jeff
drunkenly coaxed the defenseless eighth-grader to his room and
overpowered him with his massive frame.
"I wasn't big enough to do anything to stop it," Davenport said,
stone-faced. "I froze. You know when they talk about people freezing
during a rape? That happens."
When he came to his senses he stumbled to the bathroom, slammed the
door, crumpled to the ground and cried. Only a two-inch thick door
separated him from his surrounding hell. He never told anyone about that
night; like much of his life, he had no one to turn to.
Shortly after, his interest in life began to rapidly dissipate. The
weight of what felt like a shameful secret weighed heavy on his mind and
pushed him to a place he'd never been before.
"That's when I got a hold of a rifle and said 'I've had enough of this'"
Davenport said. He waited for a weekend when everyone was away from the
home where he'd access the gun. He loaded it, flipped off the "safe"
switch, bit down on the barrel and rested his thumb on the trigger.
"I don't know why I didn't do it," he said, shaking his head. "I had every intention to. I just never pulled the trigger."
He had hit rock bottom. Thankfully, the pick-me-up he needed was unexpectedly right around the corner.
That month, his middle school hosted a function featuring a motivational
speaker. Davenport sat off to the side, detached and trapped in his own
world. He remembers the days blending together in a fog, but in a
single sentence, the speaker's words might've saved his life.
"He said 'Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem'"
Davenport remembers. "He talked about how someone always has it worse. I
remember thinking 'I don't know if anyone's got it worse', but I
decided to take those words to heart and hold onto them."
Davenport found a way to push through. When life took its swings, he always swung back.
"You endure," Davenport said. "Even at your lowest of lows - when you're under the rock - you have to keep trudging along."
He pressed on through high school as a multiple sport letterman and
worked his tail off in the classroom, earning all As on every report
card. The little things still stung, like watching his buddies hop in
cars with their families while he wheeled his bicycle to the street. But
by now, he'd learned how to survive on his own. His arduous past
conditioned him to face anything with stoicism, and his grandfather's
discipline never left his side.
Before his junior year, he set his sights on the U.S. Air Force. He'd seen a video on medics, and it was all he wanted to do.
"If I didn't join the military, I was going to run away," Davenport said. "There was no plan B."
Following graduation, his recruiter informed him he'd landed his dream
job. He hopped in the car with him for the two hour drive to Oklahoma
City and took his first airplane ride to San Antonio where he attended
Basic Military Training. In many ways, he was finally free.
Sixteen years later he bounces around in his office with the enthusiasm
of a lotto winner. As much as some might have tried to take it away,
there's still a ton of kid left in him. He's now the first sergeant for
the 35th Communications Squadron, a job specifically designed to help
He spent 14 years as a medic, where the service to others was similar at its core -- even in the most grisly of situations.
"When you do eight deployments as a medic, you see a lot of nasty,
horrible stuff," Davenport said. "It makes urgent care centers in the
states look like a walk-in sick call. It's the most horrific thing
you've ever seen in your life and you're helping these guys fight to
survive. You can't describe it."
He said these grueling experiences have helped put his life and past in
perspective. He's kept quiet about his past for nearly two decades; he
didn't want pity for being dealt a bad hand in his childhood.
It wasn't until watching a video of an Air Force Academy appearance when
the words of U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III reached
him on a personal level. Welsh talked about how every Airman mattered;
how each member was a person rather than a number and how every Airman
has a story to tell. The message convinced Davenport that his story
might help encourage others who have also reached dark, lonely places.
"I don't want people to treat me differently because of my past -- you
love people for who they are, not what they've been through," he said.
"I just hope my example can help that one person that's struggling to
get through something."
Now, he lives the role. His existence revolves around selflessness.
"Sometimes I forget I'm the first sergeant with rank and I end up being
the guy that's just there for someone," Davenport said. "I need to
personalize with my people; I need to get down and get in the trenches
with them. I owe them my sincerity."
Through all the years of rejection and trying to fit in where he wasn't
wanted, he's finally found his home. The Air Force let him be himself.
He admits the recovery process is constant and he's accepted the fact
that some things will never make sense to him. But he feels whole -
something he never thought possible for so many years.
"It's made me a stronger person," he said. "Sure it sucked and I wish it
could have been different, but there's no reason to dwell on it. It's
all made me who I am today."