JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --
She opened the door to her office with a broad grin from ear to ear. The braids in her bright blonde hair caught the light, the diamond stamped beneath her rooftop stripes stood prominent on each arm, completing her sharp sage appearance. Framed certificates line the wall and a wooden rack filled with coins of different shapes and sizes sits proudly on her desk as she welcomed her guests to sit down. She tried to hide the slight quaver in her laughter and confident smile, she patiently waited to be interviewed.
It’s been eight years but the memories still seem to come in dark waves.
“I was so embarrassed to talk about it for a long time,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michelle Humphrey, 87th Air Base Wing Staff Agencies first sergeant. “I focused all my energy on my kids, my job, the gym and school. That’s how I got through most of it. I kept myself busy, I gave myself a sense of purpose again from where I lost it.”
It started out as a relationship like any other, Humphrey was showered with compliments and praise. The butterflies she got from his charming admiration of her were undeniably blissful – until it wasn’t.
His praise of her gradually became more controlling. His compliments became possessive. His kindness now only came after his aggression. When that continued even after she became pregnant with their son, Humphrey had enough.
June 9, 2010, Humphrey sat in her living room, watching the NBA playoffs over her growing belly. Her daughter was asleep in the other room and she felt safe after changing the locks when her relationship came to a halt.
In the silence behind the echoing sounds of basketballs hitting the ground through the TV screen, she heard rattling. She looked back at the kitchen door but saw nothing. She brushed it off and went on with the game. Minutes later, she could feel the piercing eyes of someone invading her safety.
Humphrey said she instinctively turned toward the direction of the glare and there he was. Standing in the bushes just outside her bay window, peering through the glass was his familiar face.
Humphrey reluctantly let him in.
After some normal conversation, he asked if they could continue talking while he was deployed. She declined and asked him to leave.
“After he stood up, he turned back around to look at me and said, ‘I was watching you through the window on your computer. Who were you talking to?’” said Humphrey. “Instantly in that moment, I knew something really bad was about to happen. My stomach dropped.”
He snatched the laptop sitting between them and sprinted into the night. Before she knew it, her bare feet were hitting the cold concrete as she darted after him.
“All I could think was, ‘I don’t want him to control me anymore,’” said Humphrey.
He ran to his car and threw the laptop on the passenger seat. As she reached around him to grab it, she felt the knuckles of his fingers smash against her throat, forcing her to the ground. Without a second thought, her fist was against his furious face. Something she had never done. Blood rolled down his face as she watched his eyes darken in a way she had never seen before.
“All he said was ‘you stupid bitch.’
“Then he boxed my head four or five times,” said Humphrey. “I collapsed after he did that; I just fell on the ground.”
As he began to leave, Humphrey tried to get up and call for help. When the screen on her phone lit up, he slammed on his brakes. He got out of the car and snatched her phone from her hands, shattering it across the street.
Before she could process it, he grabbed a fistful of her hair, dragging her through her yard until he got to the kitchen.
“I remember begging him for my life, my [unborn] son’s life and my daughter’s life,” said Humphrey. “She was asleep. How she didn’t wake up through any of this? I have no idea. Thank God she didn’t.”
Pulling out a switchblade, he pressed it against her side and assured her that if she screamed or ran, he would kill her. With the metal blade so close to the innocent life growing inside of her, all she knew to do was pray. He then sat her down in the living room and grabbed the laptop.
“He went through every aspect of my computer,” said Humphrey. “He went through emails, Facebook and pictures. Anything he could find so he could ask me about who people were and why I had things before I even knew him. If I didn’t know the answer, he would hit me or cut me.”
Throughout the night, he would choke her until she passed out, ruptured her eardrum, fractured her jaw and knocked out a tooth. He tortured and interrogated the then-four-month pregnant mother until 5 a.m. the following day.
It was a work night. Humphrey was expected at work and she needed to take her daughter to school. To prevent suspicion, he told her to go to work and tell them she wasn’t feeling well and return home.
“I remember getting [Hayleigh] into the car and took her to school,” said Humphrey. “Why I just didn’t go get help? I don’t know. I [think] it was partly because I was so mentally controlled by him and used to just doing what he told me to do all the time that I had programmed myself to do what he asked of me.”
With a bruised and swollen face, Humphrey told the school not to let anyone pickup Hayleigh except her. No one questioned her. No one asked why. She drove to the gate, handed her ID card to the guard and he sent her on her way without hesitation.
The shock had taken over her mind. She was focused on the safety of her five-year-old daughter and unborn son. It hadn’t occurred to her that her appearance would draw attention.
It wasn’t until she got to work that someone finally asked the uncomfortable question – what happened to her face?
“My ex wanted me to come back to the house because we were going to get an abortion,” said Humphrey. “That was the whole premise of everything. He was either going to beat the baby out of me, or we were going to go get an abortion. One way or the other.”
Her fellow Airmen called the police and they picked him up outside of her office where he had been waiting for her.
They went to trial that October, four months after the incident.
“The hardest part was hearing the judge ask him ‘did you tell her you were going to kill her? Did you mean what you said?’ He said ‘Oh yes, I had every intention of killing her that night,’” said Humphrey. “You don’t want to believe people are that evil.”
Two weeks after her son was born, she was relocated. She named him Kosey Justice because that’s what she felt she got for him – Justice.
Eight years ago, Humphrey almost lost her life. Eight years ago, she survived domestic abuse.
“The thing about abuse; you don’t meet somebody and they start beating your ass the next day,” said Humphrey. “It is progressive, it [targets your insecurities]. You are lifted up and beaten down to the point where you feel like you’re nothing. You believe you can’t survive without them or maintain without them. That is not the case. It is hard, but you have to find the strength to get help.”
The anxiety she felt from the fear and embarrassment of being judged prevented Humphrey from telling her story. After becoming a first sergeant and being one of the first people to give others help in similar situations, she realized that she needed to brave her fears and share what she had been through.
“I want people to know that it’s going to be okay and they don’t have to put up with [any kind of abuse],” said Humphrey. “They are worth more than how they are being treated.”
She has a kind voice, warmed by a southern accent. When she goes around her unit to talk with her Airmen, they smile to see her. Her shared experiences gave Humphrey an open door that showed Airmen her understanding. Her pain has given people a way to connect with her and, for those going through their own difficulties, the strength to get help.
“[After eight years] I felt like it was time to start talking about it. I feared the judgement of, especially [being a first sergeant], people thinking I shouldn’t have the job because of what I have gone through. I look at it completely different, I can see from both the victim and from the offender.”
After the incident, Humphrey was consistently asked why she stayed. She wants to flip the question that derives from the perception and attitude the public has of abuse. Instead of asking why someone stayed, she wants people to ask ‘Why was it okay for the abuser to do what they did?’
When asked why she tolerated so much and didn’t seek help sooner, it pulls her back to her memories. Her eyes glazed over as if searching for an internal answer.
“I don’t know why I stayed,” said Humphrey. “I can give you all different reasons that I think [contributed] to why I stayed; but I truthfully don’t know.”
But her eyes clear and her genuine smile returns when she looks toward the shelves filled with picture frames before of her desk. Frames filled with the laughter and cheer of her two children.
“I don’t look at myself as a victim,” said Humphrey. “I survived and I am here for a reason. That reason is to tell my story and help others as a first sergeant."