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Amber Holcomb burns sage and spreads the smoke with a hawk feather — a Navajo ritual to ward off evil spirits — inside her military apartment on Bitburg Annex, Germany, earlier this year.

Amber Holcomb burns sage and spreads the smoke with a hawk feather — a Navajo ritual to ward off evil spirits — inside her military apartment on Bitburg Annex, Germany, earlier this year. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — It’s what Navajos call a "third eye" that first alerted Amber Holcomb that something was wrong on a cold November night one year ago.

"It was an instinct," Holcomb recalled. "Something just didn’t feel right."

Eight weeks pregnant, she awoke to use the bathroom in her tidy military apartment in Bitburg, Germany. There, she discovered soiled baby wipes stuffed into the bathroom trash can.

Then she found her 14-year-old daughter lying awkwardly on her bed, sprawled halfway off the mattress.

Holcomb tapped her on the shoulder.

"What’s going on?" she asked.

"Zhe’e told me to go to the restroom," the girl replied, using the Navajo word for father.

"Why?" Holcomb asked.

"He tried to put his thing in me," she answered softly. "He did other things, too."

Six months later, in a military courtroom in Spangdahlem, Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Holcomb, 26, the teenager’s stepfather, pleaded guilty to forcible sodomy with a child, abuse and sexual contact with a child and attempted aggravated sexual assault of a child.

The one-time Cub Scout leader was sentenced to five years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and reduction in rank to airman basic. He is serving his sentence in a Navy-run prison in San Diego.

Amber Holcomb — her name is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the victim — and her five children soon lost their once-secure life on the air base and now face an uncertain future back in the States, where the family is surviving on food stamps and whatever Holcomb, 33, can make by periodically selling her blood. She is seeking a divorce and full custody of the children.

The tragic story might have ended there, the grimly familiar disintegration of yet another family torn apart by a stepfather’s molestation of a child.

But Justin Holcomb’s crimes did more than destroy his own family. They sharply divided the couple’s friends in the tightly knit Air Force community in Spangdahlem and laid bare cultural and religious fault lines that few acknowledge even today.

Soon after his arrest, Justin Holcomb professed a religious awakening in the Christian faith. Local evangelical groups promptly embraced him, welcoming him into their religious communities, filling the benches behind him at his trial and hugging him and praying with him during courtroom breaks. One group’s newsletter called him "a growing godly man," never mentioning the sex crimes to which he’d confessed.

Meanwhile, Amber Holcomb and her children, who followed Navajo traditions, felt abandoned and shunned. Old friends of both her and her husband stopped calling and wouldn’t say hello when passing on the street.

"Attitudes totally changed," Amber Holcomb said. "They acted like they didn’t know me."

Justin Holcomb "clung to his Christian faith and he was embraced," said Air Force spouse Jessica Murphy, a former neighbor of the Holcombs at Bitburg. "When they disregard the other person who’s been victimized, it put a really bad taste in [Amber’s] mouth for Christianity, which was sort of new to her. She has a lot of reasons to feel angry at God."

Her husband had turned to God before during rough patches in their marriage, Amber Holcomb said, promising to be "a better Christian." After past transgressions, he would start reading the Bible and bring the family to church. But the pious lifestyle wouldn’t last, Holcomb said.

"He had people fooled," she said.

Authentic conversion?

For his part, Justin Holcomb insists his religious devotion is authentic.

"Unfortunately, I can never change what has happened," he wrote from prison when asked by Stars and Stripes for comment for this story. "But my faith remains in the LORD that by His mercy and grace He will heal the wounds for my family."

Those who supported Justin Holcomb also believed his proclamations of faith to be genuine.

While the military prepared its criminal case against him, he found a second family in church. On Sunday mornings, he handed out bulletins during Protestant worship at the base chapel, and he joined off-base Bible studies several times a week.

In the July newsletter of The Navigators, a local ministry in Spangdahlem run by Larry and Patricia Hutson, Justin Holcomb was described as a "growing godly man … a new believer, though he went to church while growing up."

The newsletter passage continued: "There is an authenticity in the way we all could see God really working in Justin."

Yet, while the newsletter mentioned that Justin Holcomb was living apart from his wife and children — he had been moved to a base dormitory after his arrest — it called the separation "more of a mystery than a concern."

Larry Hutson declined to answer questions posed by Stars and Stripes about the Holcomb case.

Justin Holcomb also attended weekly Bible studies at The Hangar, an off-base hospitality house affiliated with the Cadence International ministry, an evangelical mission agency dedicated to reaching out to military communities worldwide, according to the ministry’s Web site.

The Spangdahlem chapter is led by Roger and Sheila Nielson, who sat behind Justin Holcomb during his court-martial in May. The Nielsons also declined to talk with Stars and Stripes about the case.

Murphy, a Christian, acknowledged that forgiveness and acceptance are supposed to be hallmarks of the Christian faith. But she said she’s disappointed the local Christian organizations appeared to take sides and failed to reach out to Amber Holcomb.

"I never saw them come up to her [and ask] ‘How are you doing?’ " Murphy said. "I did see them praying with him, hugging him, encouraging him."

Respect for privacy

Amber Holcomb, a former airman herself, did have a small circle of supporters before the trial. Members of her husband’s squadron dropped off a turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The squadron commander loaned her a vehicle and looked after the family dog. A coach at her daughter’s military school in Bitburg pitched in for traveling expenses to a regional sports tournament. The base also assigned a victim advocate to the family.

Amber Holcomb acknowledged that she didn’t reach out to the evangelical groups. But when she turned to the church, seeking help from the base chapel, she said she found no solace.

Her two eldest boys, then ages 13 and 10, were having trouble coping with their stepfather’s crimes, and his absence.

"We were lost. We didn’t know much about the Bible," Amber Holcomb said. She thought talking to a chaplain might help her sons.

"One chaplain, he just got me upset," said her oldest son, recalling how the chaplain kept asking him questions about his father. " ‘Do you still like him?’ ‘Do you want to move back with him?’ "

Amber Holcomb didn’t send the boys back. And the chapel didn’t follow up with the family, she said.

For privacy reasons, military chaplains can’t discuss what services they may or may not provide to individuals, said Maj. Gerald Snyder, the former 52nd Fighter Wing interim head chaplain. In cases where an alleged perpetrator and victim do seek help, they meet with separate chaplains, "maintaining strict confidentiality and safety for all parties," Snyder said.

But while chaplains counsel those who seek it, Snyder said, they don’t typically make unsolicited house calls.

"You respect their individual freedom and privacy," Snyder said. "If you have a problem at home, you don’t expect someone to call you up and offer to help you. We continually put out the message that we’re available."

There was a perception among some who knew the family that Amber Holcomb didn’t want help.

Master Sgt. Stephen Thiessen, 36, a weapons section flight chief with the 52nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Spangdahlem and Justin Holcomb’s former supervisor at a prior assignment at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, said he and his wife tried to support both Amber Holcomb and her husband and were eventually rebuffed by Amber Holcomb.

"She thought if you were trying to support Justin, you weren’t supporting her," he said. "I don’t think she was open to the help."

A wife’s struggle

During Justin Holcomb’s trial last May, his wife sat with her shoulders squared, her gaze expressionless and fixed straight ahead.

In her traditional Navajo turquoise dress, leggings and moccasins, she stood out in a courtroom filled with uniformed servicemembers and civilians. Her long black hair was pulled tightly in a bun. Laid across her lap was her grandmother’s Navajo blanket.

She was unmoved when Justin Holcomb broke down sobbing while addressing the court.

"I let one weak moment in my life turn into the biggest mistake of my life," he testified, his voice cracking as he read from a six-page unsworn statement. At times he addressed his children directly.

"Why? I’ve asked myself that question over and over again. Why would I risk losing all of you … my parental rights, to watch you grow up, to play games with you outside …? Truthfully, I don’t know why."

In addition to admitting to attempting to have intercourse with his stepdaughter in the bathroom, Justin Holcomb also confessed to fondling her under her T-shirt while she slept next to him during an overnight bus trip to Paris in November 2008.

In late July, former 3rd Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the convening authority for Justin Holcomb’s court-martial, granted him two months of clemency off of his five-year prison sentence. Breedlove also approved a waiver that authorizes Amber Holcomb to receive her husband’s E-1 pay and allowances for six months.

But starting over with five kids in a troubled economy stateside has been daunting, Amber Holcomb said, and the family is struggling financially. She’s in school full time, using student loans at a local college to study to become a dental assistant.

She had hoped to end all contact with Justin Holcomb.

But when he sent a few letters to the family’s former address at a military post office at Bitburg, the letters were forwarded to her, she said.

Amber Holcomb read the letters.

"He had the nerve to ask for a picture of me," she said.

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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