by Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson
JBER Public Affairs
10/29/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- (Editor's
note: The story contains descriptions from a personal account of a
domestic and child abuse victim - may not be suitable for all readers.)
"Go get undressed and get into bed," her father said. "I'll be there in a minute."
Helen Holston, not yet old enough to go to elementary school, did as her
father told her. He then proceeded to beat her with a leather belt from
neck to toe; he called it branding.
"My dad was in the Army for 22 years, and married my mom while he was
stationed overseas," Holston said. "Things were very rocky between [my
parents] and there was a lot of domestic violence between them. Lots."
Holston said she lived in fear for most of her young life, and when her
parents quit beating up on each other, they started beating up on her.
Forty years later, Holston said she has reached a place in her life where she feels it's important to tell her story.
By raising awareness of domestic, child and sexual abuse, Holston said
she hopes to empower victims who feel there is no way out and empower
military organizations like the family advocacy program to help those
"I went to a lot of schools on military bases," Holston said. "I never
told anybody because at our house, everything was secret. You don't
So she didn't. All through her adolescence, Holston was abused by both
her parents. Her mother would beat her with whatever was nearby; her
father, with belts she fetched and brought to him herself.
Eventually, Holston's father's command forced him to go to counseling with his family.
They went twice.
As a preschooler, Holston often cleaned up used contraceptives and vomit
after the parties her parents frequently hosted at their house.
"I was the adult, and they were the crazy kids," Holston said. "When I was five, my dad and his buddies came into my room."
They were drunk.
"I acted like I was sleeping," Holston said. "And they - they did whatever they did to me."
Holston said she tried to tell her mother, but she wouldn't listen. Her
mother told her she stayed with her dad because he didn't "bother" her.
She meant sexually.
"I had nowhere to turn," Holston said. "He took showers with me until I was 11. I did not know that was strange."
The molestation ended when Holston reached the age of 11, but the
physical abuse didn't stop. She became hyper-involved in school. The
teachers thought she was an overachiever, a hard-charger, but Holston
knew better. She was just doing anything she could to stay away from
When she made it to high school, she found solace in the structure of the Junior ROTC.
"At home, there was no structure. I never knew what I was coming home
to. Everything was crazy and chaotic," Holston said. "JROTC had
structure, and it saved my life."
During high school, Holston was seriously contemplating suicide until
she was given a mundane little award. To her, it wasn't mundane at all.
It was a glimpse of light in the perpetual darkness which enveloped her
"I'll never forget when I quit thinking of suicide; it was the stupidest
little award I got from drill team. I'd won the six-week drill
competition," Holston said. "It clicked. I could be really good at
Holston went on to be named student of the year and cadet of the year,
and become the first female battalion commander for her school. The
abuse carried on.
Holston entered the delayed enlistment program, and when she graduated
high school, she stayed at a friend's house for three days before
leaving for basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
After graduating from Advanced Individual Training, Holston went to her
first duty station, fully intending to create a career for herself in
the Army; and away from her parents.
However, she would find out escaping her parents' influence would be a lot more difficult than moving almost 4,000 miles away.
Holston's time at Fort Wainwright was rife with conflict; she was
married and divorced twice and a noncommissioned officer threatened her
life if she did not perform sexual favors for him.
She did not reenlist.
For more than 20 years, Holston hopped from one state to the next, never quite settling down.
She continued to flit in and out of one abusive relationship and
another. Chaos was where she was comfortable; it was all she knew,
Then she met Mark Holston, a police officer and former Marine.
"It was like Alice in Chains meets the Brady Bunch," Helen said. "It's
strange with Mark; he's kind, he's calm, generous and compassionate.
Those are things I've never experienced. It's odd for me."
Now, as they approach their 10-year anniversary, Mark said he jokes
about growing old together with Helen. He knows it makes her
uncomfortable to think about reaching this milestone in their lives, but
it's important she knows he's not going anywhere.
"I don't drink anymore, but when I did," Mark said. "I would see her
staring at me; evil-eye staring at me, because the smell of alcohol was
triggering bad things."
Holston said she finally found help through the Department of Veteran's Affairs in Pensacola, Florida.
"I've been out since 90. I had not met a counselor I trusted enough
to really deeply share; until 2013," Helen said. "She helped me through a
process called dialectical behavior therapy, and I did a course with
her once a week for six months."
"Pensacola VA was a big pivot point in my life. After DBT, I did nine
sessions of trauma-recovery management," Helen said. "After Pensacola,
we came back to Alaska so I could start taking college classes, and Mark
could get a job.
"Now I've got all this new training from Pensacola. We've relocated back
to Anchorage. Mark's got a job on JBER, and I've been approved for
Helen was able to connect with a tax preparation class through JBER. And
she's been approved to start taking college classes in the spring
through the Alaska Department of Veteran's Affairs.
"I have run for office. I have served on the governor's board here in
Alaska. I've served on the governor's board in Alabama," Helen said. "My
dream job, with 20 years of built-up experience [helping veterans], is
to work in [Washington] D.C. at central VA to make policy change for
continuity for veterans; to make it less of a hardship for veterans to
get service-connected disability [benefits]."
Helen has kept her past largely a secret until now. But she has decided it's time to make a change.
"Ninety-nine percent of my friends never knew I have this background. I
just don't trust people enough to share that," Helen said. "Now, I
think, 'If it saves one life, it's worth it.'"
Helen said she isn't sure where her future will lead, but she is sure of her goals.
"I want to write a book. I want to help people. I want to change my
name," Helen said. "I think I'll change it to Back, Helen Back; because I
have been to hell and back. It's perfect."
Mark said he wonders how different Helen's life could have been, if
someone had intervened, if someone had stood up for Helen as a
"They have these wonderful programs to educate people on looking out for
signs; if this had been around 20 years ago when she was going to all
these military schools, one of the teachers might have done something,"
Mark said. "It could have saved her. Who knows what she could have
The tragedy is, the family advocacy program was established in 1974,
when Helen was 7 years old, as a way of detecting child maltreatment. It
was later extended to domestic abuse in 1981, but the program was so
new, people simply weren't aware of it.
October was Domestic Violence Prevention Awareness Month and the JBER
Family Advocacy Program was all over base attempting to make people more
aware of the resources available. Though the month may be over, the
desire to help is still there.
"There are programs out there now, and people have to be willing to take
a leap of faith and just do it," Helen said. "You have to take that
For information on the JBER Family Advocacy Program and other resiliency resources, visit www.jber.af.mil/resiliency.asp.