The best leadership comes from experience, and often from adversity. Active duty airman Sean Douglas, who found his passion as a mentor in the U.S. Air Force, is telling his story to encourage others to become their best selves.
Douglas enlisted in the Air Force on Sept. 12, 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States the day before. At his first duty station at the Royal Air Force base in Lakenheath, England, he was a young 19-year-old airman entering a “work hard, play hard” culture. He experienced a deep camaraderie with his colleagues, and they would often drink together off-duty.
In 2003, Douglas deployed to the Middle East for the first time. In the early days of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, past childhood trauma started to re-emerge in his consciousness.
When he was in second grade—following his parents’ divorce—his mother got remarried. In third grade, the psychological and physical abuse began. His stepfather would throw him across tables, beat him with belts and paddles, and the police were at the home frequently. After his mother reached a breaking point, she fled with his siblings and him in the middle of the night while his stepfather was in jail.
In the ensuing years, Douglas struggled to put down roots in his new homes while eluding his stepfather.
“Before I was 18, I lived in 11 different houses and attended eight different schools because we’d get evicted, we’d move around a lot, we’d try to leave, and he’d find us,” Douglas recalled.
While he was stationed in Lakenheath, he stopped experiencing emotional attachments with the women he met socially. When he finally did allow himself to have feelings for a woman who would become his fiancée, it ended in a split after she had been unfaithful. He didn’t feel welcomed anywhere, except in the military, and he turned to alcohol to cope, have fun, and enjoy the camaraderie.
“Every time I went out somewhere and we were drinking, I felt like I could be myself more. I wasn’t afraid of what people thought about me. I wasn’t so closed off and closed-minded,” Douglas explained.
But self-medicating with alcohol led to serious consequences. He was always drinking and began pushing his friends away. He started associating with new, heavy drinkers who would get themselves into trouble. In one incident in 2005, he showed up to duty intoxicated and had to contend with the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Air Force put him on probation and placed him in an internal recovery program. A couple of years later, he relapsed into drinking. He got into an altercation and was almost booted from the military. He also had trouble at home and was verbally abusing his wife and stepchildren. She left, and he saw something in himself he abhorred.
“I’m basically my stepfather, except I’m not beating anybody,” Douglas recalled.
Pulled From the Brink
Soon after, Douglas found himself on the floor of his apartment on Christmas Eve 2008 with a 9mm handgun in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other. His wife had just left around Thanksgiving, and the Air Force was still trying to determine his future in the service. For a moment he contemplated ending it all.
Fortunately, his fellow airmen pulled him back from the brink. They got him into therapy, a recovery program, and he began speaking with chaplains. For two weeks, he lived with the supervisor who was in charge of him. He couldn’t drink and wasn’t allowed to venture anywhere on his own.
Douglas also started to work on himself and began to read literature on personal development. His mother gave him a copy of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which led him down a new, more fulfilling path. He stopped hanging out with his reckless drinking buddies and only associated with those colleagues who were helping him.
Soon, others began wanting to help and mentor him. He himself started to become a mentor, and they urged him to become a drill instructor. He was initially skeptical, but they argued that going back to basic training and becoming a role model would be his best opportunity to move forward. He applied to become an instructor at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and was accepted.
“In the four years that I was there, I figured out how to train, mentor, coach, speak, and be that role model that a lot of people don’t have in the military,” Douglas said.
Douglas began to connect with his recruits, and he discovered that many of them also came from broken homes and difficult circumstances. It was his own childhood trauma and recovery that made him a more empathetic drill instructor. He subsequently became a resilience implementer and suicide awareness trainer in the military, and he’s now respected as a mentor and leader.
Now 37, Douglas is still on active duty in the Air Force until June 18, but he’s also pursuing a career in personal and professional development as an author, speaker, mentor, and radio host. He’s the author of “Decisions: The Power to Overcome Self Defeating Behaviors” and the founder of Success Corps, a personal and professional development firm.
Douglas said he was compelled to develop a platform to share his story and inspire others. His greatest advice is to tell your story, because it’ll give somebody else the fortitude to tell theirs.
“It’s everything. I’ve had to own it,” Douglas said.