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Airman overcomes years of abuse, uses trauma to help others

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Amy Younger
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – The moment is surreal – a nightmare manifested. The weary mother and daughter step through the door into a modest apartment. A cloud of dust particles moves sleepily at their entry. The hot desert air trespasses further with each hollow step, disrupting the stagnant air in the small space. This is their home now.

Second Lieutenant DéJayé Herrera, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron assistant aircraft maintenance unit officer in charge, a former senior noncommissioned officer and now finalist for Ms. Veteran America 2020, was at rock bottom.

Herrera and her daughter, Eleena, were displaced, bringing with them only a single suitcase containing what was now the sum of their worldly possessions and leaving behind a home fractured by abuse.

“When it comes to domestic violence, in our mind, we have a picture of what that looks like, and in my mind, family violence didn’t look like me,” said Herrera.

“For many years, my daughter and I suffered in silence,” she said. “I know as parents, it’s our job to take care of our kiddos and protect them, but Eleena actually stepped up and took care of mom.”

Herrera had recently come back from a deployment when her daughter, then only eight years old, reported that she had been a victim of physical abuse to staff at her elementary school. The violence Herrera thought she had been successful in hiding through her decade-long marriage – abuse which she believed she experienced alone – had been turned on Eleena in her absence. 

“It started with my mom, then she left for six months for a work trip and that's when it all started to happen to me,” Eleena said.

Herrera spent years carefully maintaining the image of a happy marriage – not just for her daughter, but for her family and her Air Force community.

“On the surface, I appeared to have my stuff together,” Herrera said. “My former spouse and I were a dream team on base, and there we were, all of our dirty laundry was aired.”

Herrera said that the call from the school, the public image falling apart and the decision to leave their home all happened so suddenly that it felt unreal. Herrera and Eleena relocated to a nearby apartment complex the same day.

Herrera said her bond with Eleena is unbreakable.

“During our transition, I explained to her how it was going to be and asked her if she was okay with it, and she was very adamant that this is how she wanted it to be,” Herrera said. “She and I are truly a team.”

No longer in a dual-income situation, and her housing stipend going into a home she no longer occupied, Herrera was on the hook to pay for everything out of pocket. For months, the pair lived with no household goods, until relief came from a local organization dedicated to helping women recover from domestic violence situations. Herrera and her daughter received a few pieces of donated furniture—an act that would stick with both Herrera and her daughter.

“Our situation was very hard, but the air mattress we slept on for a long time wasn't that bad because I was with my mom and we were safe,” Eleena said. “I was grateful.”

Herrera said the sacrifices she endured were an afterthought. Her first priority was the resilience and well-being of her daughter.

“To me, failure was never an option,” Herrera said. “I needed to be strong for Eleena. If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure I’d still be here. She looks to me for strength and I refuse to let her down.”

Herrera used the traumatic experience to drive her to new heights. A master sergeant at the time, she put in her package for consideration to the Air Force’s Officer Training School and, eventually, received a commission. Herrera, a Sacramento native, leaned on family to care for Eleena during this time.

“I busted my butt for her – for us,” Herrera said, recounting her time separated from her daughter.

Herrera’s commitment paid dividends when she earned the title of Distinguished Graduate—an especially remarkable accomplishment due to her class size reaching 800 students, which has since earned the name of ‘Godzilla class.’

It wasn’t long before the two had cultivated a new life, free from the abuse they suffered. Herrera’s story, along with her career-long reputation for excellence, put her in the mind of her peers for a unique opportunity. 

Herrera said one day her phone was “blown up” with social media notifications in a post soliciting entrants for the Ms. Veteran America competition. Former co-workers and friends pinged her continuously to encourage her to sign up.

“I was like, ‘Nope, I’m not a pageant girl,” Herrera said. “I’m not putting on a bikini.”

Although hesitant, Herrera decided to entertain the suggestion. She scoured the information in the post, learning what she could about the event—a multi-day contest of competitor talent and strengths. The competition, which began in 2012, focuses on showcasing “women beyond the uniform,” according to the Ms. Veteran America website.

Through her continued investigation, she discovered the organization behind the event and the cause that it benefits – a revelation, Herrera said, that compelled her to sign up.

“I learned what Final Salute’s mission is: ‘providing safe and suitable housing for female homeless veterans,’” she said. 

Herrera saw this as the perfect opportunity to pay forward the kindness and generosity her and her daughter experienced at their lowest point.

Currently, she is one of the top 25 finalists, competing in two previous elimination rounds.

“A lot of female veterans find themselves homeless because of some trauma that they have experienced,” Herrera said. “I could speak on this from a place of conviction. Thankfully, I have never been homeless, but I know what it’s like to be displaced from my home and have to transition.”

Stories like Herrera’s are not uncommon.

Female homeless veterans are among the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. with 55,000 reported, over 60% of which are mothers, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Herrera said it’s organizations like Final Salute Inc. that represent sustainable means of combating this growing issue, while increasing awareness in the philosophy of giving women “a hand up, not a hand out.”

“Even if I don’t win, I will continue to support and raise funds for this cause,” Herrera said.

Herrera explained that her passion is supporting others, emotionally and materially, who face similar traumas–emphasizing that it takes tremendous courage to ask for help.

“Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell my story without my voice cracking or my eyes getting watery,” Herrera said. “I tell my story to let people know that domestic violence is real, and to bring the crappy things going on in the dark, into the light, so we can talk about them and people don’t feel alone.”

Herrera stressed that domestic violence isn’t exclusive to any type of individual or circumstance.

“I was a freaking senior NCO, afraid to leave my spouse because I didn’t think I could do it on my own,” Herrera said. “Now I look at my story, not with shame, but with hope. I know what it’s like to pick myself up off the ground. Don’t look at where I’m at, look at where I came from.

“I’ve come a long way. Eleena has come a long way. We don’t see ourselves as victims. We see ourselves as survivors and we are thriving.”

Finding the right help could save the life of someone affected by domestic violence, abuse or displacement. To learn more about what resources are available, visit Military OneSource at https://www.militaryonesource.mil/ or call (800) 342-9647.