One Airman's story of resilience

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Trevor Rhynes
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
"I grew up with a hard working father and a great mom who was active in the community ... I was very fortunate," said Master Sgt. Etienne Tousignant, 786th Force Support Squadron career assistance advisor. "So when I tell my story people always wonder 'what's wrong with this guy, where did he go wrong?'"

Tousignant's story started when he was a mischievous youngster.

"The summer after my junior year was when I got busted for the first time by the police, one of my friends and I were at a store and we shoplifted," he said. "When my parents came to pick me up, they gave me a look when they got there that made me think it was the end of the world."

Life didn't get any better for Tousignant. People began to bully and haze him. He was threatned with expulsion after a confrontation in the locker room.

"One day after ski practice, the best skier on the team took my clothes and ran out into the hallway. I put on what clothes I had ran and out after him," he said. "That's when my whole world changed because I assaulted him.

"I got carted off to a juvenile detention center and sat in solitary confinement, where they slid food under a crack in the door," the Anchorage, Alaska native said.

Without an outside view, Tousignant didn't know what time of day it was, his only view was a storage area.

Tousignant said he gave up time around people to spend time by himself.

"I didn't want anything to do with whatever was going on around me so I would voluntarily go back to solitary and stay there," he said. "I don't remember when, but eventually, we got carted off to the courtroom."

The court found the person Tousignant assaulted was a bully, and sentenced Tousignant to two years probation and hours upon hours of community service.

After the hearing, Tousignant couldn't leave his parents' sight, and couldn't go back to school because he was expelled from the district.

His only option was homeschooling, but Tousignant's mother wanted more for him. He went to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he stayed with three different families.

He graduated high school, told his parents he was joining the Air Force and left for San Antonio months later.

"After graduating basic training, I knew that I never wanted to make a mistake again," he said. "This created a lot of anxiety for me, so when I showed up to work late once I broke into tears."

Tousignant went on to Kadena Air Base, Japan where the tropical island was a big change from Alaska.

"I had no idea what to do with myself when I got there, so I drank," he said. "I ended up making a friend who later on found me with a bottle in one hand and a knife in the other. He told his chain of command, who told mine."

His supervisor sat him down and gave Tousignant two options; get help yourself or the commander would order him to get help.

"My supervisor put me in the car, drove me to mental health and I self-identified, which was the best choice I ever made," he said.

Tousignant credits the camaraderie of the NCOs and the Airmen for helping him through his situation.

"At that point in my life I believed five things to be true; I wasn't staying in the Air Force, that I would never get married, never be an NCO, didn't believe in God and that I wasn't going to live very long," he said. "I thought that was going to be my life, but through those people I found that none of that was true.

"I found my spirituality, made staff sergeant, found out that the Air Force was good for me and I wanted to stay in because of the people and it was great when I met my first wife."

They dated for a year before getting married. Two months after they got married, his wife started having problems at work.

"Things started getting difficult for her, she was battling with supervisors because she felt she was overworked," he said. "She was miserable, her battles at work coupled with events in her youth led to emotional problems."

Another two months passed and Tousignant found his wife lying in the bathtub, next to a knife with alcohol and countless pills.

He took her to the hospital, against her wishes, where her stomach was pumped and she was put into the clinic.

"I visited her every day, but she was mad at me for putting her in the hospital," he said. "Even after my own issues I couldn't relate to what she was going through. As time went on I got more distant from her and after a year or so, our marriage ended."

Hindsight led Tousignant to believe there is never a bad opportunity to talk to a military family life consultant, saying he's done it at every base he's been.

"I've been asked 'why are you so driven, why do you get so involved,' and I tell them it's because I changed somebody's life in high school, I took what could have been theirs and changed it forever," Tousignant said. "I don't know how to do things any other way. If I could spend the rest of my life helping people out I would and I will, because I have something to make up for as far as I'm concerned."

Times of stress remind Tousignant of a movie quote; "Life's a garden, dig it. Never give up, keep on keeping on."

Editor's Note: This is the first part in an ongoing series where Ramstein Airmen share their stories with the community.