KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
“Breathe . . . just breathe Holly.” That was the last thing I told myself before walking into the doctor's room at the pediatric clinic on Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
When I was growing up my favorite television shows were always centered on crime scene investigation. So when I joined the Air Force as a photographer in 2011 and was told by my technical school instructors I would learn how to take alert photos I was the happiest Airman on earth.
When I got to Ramstein I went through on the job training, eagerly waiting for the opportunity to focus on alert photography. Within three weeks of starting that training I was cleared to take the alert photos on my own.
When I got the call for my first alert I was nervous but excited at the same time. The 86th Security Forces Squadron law enforcement desk NCO told me a 9-year old girl was sexually assaulted and they needed photos taken of her.
I drove to the apartment where they were, walked in and was met by a hurricane of chaos. It was like standing on a beach and having wave upon wave of emotions, tears and screaming just hit me over and over again.
As each minute went on I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into an ocean of pain. Each tear that fell from her eyes was another drop of water flowing over my head.
I was drowning.
How could I stand here and take photos of a young girl who had been abused?
I looked at her and in an attempt to pull myself together I grabbed her hand and told her everything would be ok. Just breathe.
I loved everything about alert photography: the excitement, the rush and the fact I could use my skills to help others. I captured images that helped bring abusers to justice and save children from neglectful parents. However, while I was helping others through alert photography, I began neglecting my own mental health.
Months went by and after each intense alert photo shoot I would find myself in the bathroom at work or in my dorm room crying. It became harder and harder to keep my tears from flowing after documenting the aftermath of the worst moments in someone’s life.
Just a year and a half after arriving at Ramstein I found myself sitting at work, I was 7 months pregnant and happy with the sudden realization that my stomach was big enough to rest my bowl of gelato on. As I sat smiling to myself about this observation, I heard the office phone ring. It was family advocacy saying they needed an alert photographer to take photos of an infant they suspected was being sexually assaulted.
I grabbed my camera bag and on my way out the door Tech. Sgt. Tyrona Lawson, one of my NCOs, stopped me and asked if I was ok mentally to go take the photos since I was pregnant. I nodded to her and said "Yes Ma'am." However, as I uttered this statement, I knew in the back of my mind that I shouldn’t be going to take the photos.
When I got to the pediatric clinic the nurse took me back to the room. Before she opened the door all I could hear was a baby crying.
Once again, I could feel the sea of emotions rushing over my feet like a wave from the ocean. I was walking back into the hurricane and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I looked down at my stomach as if my unborn child was going to tell me it was going to be ok and then said "Breathe . . . just breathe Holly . . ." With each tear that came from the baby and his mother I sunk a little bit further.
Till this day I have not told anyone of the pain I felt for each person I've taken alert photos of. I was always that person telling others everything would be ok.
One thing that we sometimes forget as military members is to keep ourselves mentally and emotionally ready. It's important to get the mission done quickly and effectively but we all need to take the time to keep ourselves steady.
I'll be one of the first people to admit that I, Holly Mansfield, am a hard head who doesn’t talk about my feelings and doesn't cry . . . in public that is . . . but that shouldn't stop me from talking about these experiences so I can become stronger mentally.
Sometimes all it takes to make the days go by better for me is a quick lunch break with a coworker, hanging out with a staff sergeant or technical sergeant from another office or even crying in private on a friend’s shoulder after a long stressful day.
If you’re reading this and going through a tough situation please don’t let yourself slip this far. Use the resources around you to keep yourself resilient. It can be hard to admit you are struggling to someone at mental health, a chaplain or even a fellow Airman but we are here to help you.
I’m still working on strengthening my mental resiliency, it is an ongoing task, but as I work on it I continue to remind myself to just breathe.