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Sexual trauma survivor finds light in adaptive sports

  • Published
  • By Samuel King Jr.

When a 96th Test Wing Airman sits down in a wheelchair later this week at the 2023 Warrior Games, the weight of her life struggles, trauma and doubt will disappear.  She will be lighter, clearer, and ready to win.

That’s the effect adaptive sports has on Staff Sgt. Carly James, an Air Force Wounded Warrior athlete competing in wheelchair basketball and many other events at both the Warrior and Invictus Games this year.

James has always been passionate about sports, playing college basketball and volleyball in Wisconsin before joining the Air Force.  She continued to play in the Air Force on intramural teams.

Approximately two years into James’ enlistment, she was a maintainer at Whiteman AFB, Missouri.  On Nov. 27, 2019, she was sexually assaulted by a coworker. 

This life and career-altering trauma changed James forever.  The usual outgoing Airman turned inward, and a host of mental issues sprang up from her military sexual trauma.

The Air Force took quick action to get James away from her work center.  She moved here to the 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Red in 2020 just before COVID-19 took hold on the United States.

Upon arrival and throughout her time at Eglin, James struggled with depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and a compulsion to continuously pick at the skin on her face as a coping mechanism.

“My mindset was I don’t trust anyone, I don’t want to make any friends,” said the 27-year-old New Lisbon, Wisconsin native about her first few months here.  “I tried to ignore what happened.  I didn’t want to think or talk about it.  I just cried at work continuously.”

She talked to her first sergeant at the time, Senior Master Sgt. Susan Erdrich, who got her help with the Air Force Wounded Warrior program.  Her AFW2 care coordinator, Jeff Maberry, pushed her to seek out the Mental Health and Sexual Assault Prevention and Response offices and Lauren Barboza.

“I was in denial of how bad my mental illness was,” said James.  “I tried to tough it out and cover it up.”

Getting help during the spring and summer of 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak was also a challenge.  Her online and over-the-phone appointments were not helping but were only available base option at the time.  James used Eglin’s VA outpatient clinic for six months due to their video conferencing capabilities.

In addition to getting mental help, her AFW2 care coordinator explained the adaptive sports program.

“When he brought up sports, I just lit up.  I said that’s what I want to do,” James said smiling.  “After the MST, I didn’t want to play sports anymore.  This was an opportunity to return to it in a comfortable environment.”

Although most wounded warriors begin slowly with an introduction to the adaptive sports, James just jumped right in.  Her first in-person AFW2 event was the Air Force trials for Warrior Games 2021.  The trials are where the athletes are chosen to represent the Air Force in specific sports events and categories.

James made the team, but the games were cancelled due to continuing COVID-19 concerns.  She said attending AFW2 events, lights something up inside her each time.

“What made the difference was meeting other people with the same experiences as me and they understand what I’m going through and how I feel,” she said.  “I had no intention of making friends, but I did, and those friends are now family.”

James said she was humbled when she first sat down to play wheelchair basketball at the AFW2 event.

“I thought it was going to be easy,” said James, one of only 11 athletes selected for the Invictus Games this year.  “It is a lot more difficult to learn and takes a lot of coordination.”

The five-year NCO said all the bad feelings, judgements, and negativity drift away when she’s on the court.  She said the encouragement and the team concept of the game makes her happy.

James is one of the few females who made the Warrior Games team for all three team sports: wheelchair basketball and rugby along with sitting volleyball. She also competes in individual sports like rowing, track, and swimming. 

A real breakthrough moment in her recovery happened at the 2022 Warrior Games in Orlando.  James was an avid swimmer prior to her MST.  Afterward, due to her skin-picking disorder, she wore heavy make up to mask the visible marks left on her face.  In the pool, those signs would show, and James said she was embarrassed by them.

“It’s hard for others to grasp how much the skin picking affected all aspects of my life.  I didn’t want to go out in public or do things I enjoy because of it,” she said.  “In the (AFW2) program, I realized I was not going to be judged, I’m going to be accepted. We’re not here for physical appearances or to judge others.”

She got in the pool and swam to a silver and bronze medal in swimming during those games.

“I was just so proud of myself, and I hadn’t felt that way in a long time,” she said.

James became heavily involved with AFW2 program from that point on attending as many care events as possible and making this year’s Warrior and Invictus teams.

Outside of wounded warrior, James is now married.  Her husband, Senior Airman Kailah James, has been by her side at her lowest point and through her recovery with patience and positivity.

“I know what she is going through now is not her fault,” said K James, a security forces defender. “It motivates me to support her as her husband and caregiver to battle this trauma until it can be conquered. Seeing her compete in adaptive sports gives me hope because you can see the motivation and resiliency in her come out in competition.”

James also her dog named Nalah to her life in 2021.  Nalah completed training as a service animal in 2022.  Her service companion is by her side or watching from the sidelines at all the AFW2 events.

Although James planned to make the Air Force a career, she will move on to new things in 2024, but she said the AFW2 program will always remain in her life.

“There were times I just wanted to give up, but this program literally saved my life,” James said.  “They helped me find my passion again, sports.  They provided a support system and a second family.  They uplift me and encourage me.  I’m honestly blessed to be a part of it.”