ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
As Air Force Reserve Command’s Developing Resilient Leaders chief of strategy, Col. Isaac Davidson has conducted considerable research into what makes a resilient Airman … including a lot of introspection into what has helped him overcome some extremely difficult times in his own life.
Born and raised in the Central American country of Panama, Davidson came to the United States in 1979 at the age of 16 along with his two younger brothers and a younger sister. His dad immigrated to America a few years before, and once he had saved enough money, sent for his wife and then his kids to join him in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1983, Isaac enlisted in the Air Force. Rising in the ranks to technical sergeant, he earned his commission in 1991 and embarked on a new career as an officer. His brother, Rogelio, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1982, serving 32 years and retiring as the Department of the Army’s Inspector General Sergeant Major; and his sister, Damaris, served 30 years total in the Army as a Reservist in different statuses and attained the rank of staff sergeant. Youngest brother Jaime, six years younger than Isaac, pursued a career in music.
As an artist, promoter and disc jockey of a new type of Spanish reggae music known as Reggaeton, Jaime was an up-and-coming star in New York’s music scene. His meteoric rise came to a crashing halt on Feb. 9, 1992, when he was arrested and charged with the murder of Syracuse, New York, police officer Wallie Howard Jr., who was shot to death during a robbery while working a drug operation undercover on Oct. 30, 1990.
“I can remember that call like it was yesterday, although it was really 29 years ago,” Col. Davidson said during a recent interview, along with his wife of 36 years, Lidia. “Lidia and I were stationed in Colorado Springs. I was a second lieutenant assigned to the mission support squadron at Peterson Air Force Base when we got the call that my brother had been arrested. From that moment on, it’s been quite a journey.”
Although he successfully proved he was in Brooklyn at the time of the shooting in Syracuse, Jaime was convicted of playing a part in setting up the drug deal that went bad and was sentenced to three life sentences plus 85 years in federal prison.
Jaime has professed his innocence since 1990 and has had the full support of Isaac and the rest of the Davidson family since his arrest. With the help of his family, Jaime fought his conviction in the years that followed, without success. Then, somewhat surprisingly, then-President Donald Trump commuted Davidson’s sentence just days before Trump’s term as president ended in mid-January.
After 29 years in some of the toughest federal prisons in the country, Jaime Davidson walked out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Williamsburg, South Carolina, as a free man on Jan. 20. It should be noted that several members of the Howard family and the Syracuse law enforcement community have condemned the commutation and still believe in Jaime’s guilt.
For Isaac and Lidia, their strong Christian faith has been the foundation they have leaned on as they struggled along with, supported and prayed for Jaime throughout the last 29 years.
“This is a story of joy,” Isaac said.
“We were so happy when we heard the news that Jaime was coming home, but we were able to get through the last 29 years when things weren’t going right because we knew God was always in control,” Lidia added. “He gave us strength."
Jaime said having his family’s support was critical to his surviving nearly three decades behind bars.
“Knowing my family was always there for me was extremely critical, especially when I was just beginning this journey,” he said. “I was a lost and confused 23-year-old young man facing three life sentences plus 85 years. Had I not had my family to talk to, to pray for me, to pray with me, I would never have been able to make it through.”
Jaime said he would reflect on the words his mother told him immediately after his trial when times turned really difficult in prison. “She told me, ‘a man is about to sentence you, not God. Whatever man gives you, God will take away. Hold on to these words. Your family is going to be with you every step of the way until you are once again free.’”
Isaac and Lidia first met at a Valentine’s Day party at the Davidson home in 1981. They married in 1984, just as Isaac was beginning his Air Force career. They have three grown sons and two grandchildren. “My wife has been a Christian from her childhood. I became a Christian through her example,” he said. “My faith has definitely helped me deal with Jaime’s being in prison all of these years.”
“I can remember listening to Isaac and Jaime on the phone over the years, praying for the police officers and their families, for the wardens, for the people he was in prison with,” Lidia said. “Isaac told Jaime if he forgave all of these people, it would free him, not physically from the prison, but it would give him the freedom to not feel so bound. And I remember one particular phone call when I told Isaac, ‘It sounds to me like Jaime has lost all of the bitterness he has been carrying around for all of these years.’”
Isaac said the first few years were extremely tough on his younger brother. “There were some attempts on his life and he had to fight just to stay alive,” Isaac said. “Thankfully, he made it through those early years and he began to focus his attention on helping others following an inspirational and motivating talk with a prison official.”
In the years that followed, Jaime earned praise from prison officials for his dedication to helping others. He mentored and tutored more than 1,000 prisoners to help them earn their GED certificates. He was involved in several programs aimed at reducing gun violence and spoke to countless young people, encouraging them to be careful whom they associated with and to listen to their parents. He also studied the law and helped numerous prisoners with their cases, and helped raise money for several charitable causes, particularly mass shootings and natural disasters, while incarcerated.
“I’m really proud of Jaime for all of the people he has helped,” Isaac said. “There was one 11-year-old girl in particular convicted of murder whom he helped get freed from prison. He really has done a lot of good things for a lot of people over the years.”
“When I turned my attention to helping others, I was in my element,” Jaime said. “When I was organizing fund raisers, teaching or helping people with their court cases, I felt like I was free. That was a real turning point for me and was crucial to my being able to survive all these years behind the walls.”
From a resilience standpoint, the colonel said he has constantly leaned on his faith and his family whenever he has needed help dealing with difficult situations, especially his brother’s incarceration. But, sometimes, he had to look for help in other places.
“One time, in particular, we had PCSed from Colorado to Panama,” Lidia said. “We were born and raised there, so it was great to be back in our home country. But Isaac, who was a young captain at the time, was going through a time of depression. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong. At the time, there was a big stigma associated with depression in the military and people were really hesitant about seeking help. But it got so bad that we had to do something, so Isaac finally went to the emergency room. The doctor didn’t prescribe any medication, but he really helped him get through that difficult time. He was exactly what Isaac needed."
Isaac, Lidia and the rest of the Davidson family are currently helping Jaime as he transitions to life outside prison and continues to work to clear his name.
“He has a tough road ahead of him,” Isaac said. “He’s staying with family now. He still has a tendency to want to go to his room every night just before 9 o’clock because that’s what he has done every night for the last 29 years. When he went to prison, there were no cell phones, no flip phones, and now everything is done on a smart phone. The world has changed and he has a lot of adapting to do.”
The colonel said he encourages others to turn to their faith both when things are going well and when they are facing difficulties in life. “I would also encourage people not to hold on to hate and bitterness,” he added. “It can eat away at both your mental and your physical health. Resilience is all about striving for the optimal me and bouncing back stronger from life’s difficult situations.”
The Air Force Reserve Chaplain corps enables resiliency by connecting Airmen, civilians and family members to available resources focused on mental health and spirituality, both key pillars of the Comprehensive Airman Fitness program.
“Your Chapel team can assist you with finding ways to practice your faith no matter what your background and belief,” said Chaplain (Col.) Charles Towery, AFRC’s command chaplain. “Research shows that people who participate in worship, read their faith’s scriptures/traditions, and pray/meditate regularly are more resilient people. These people give leaders more of what they want and less of what they don’t want. Whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox or something else, your Chapel team stands ready to help.”
As AFRC’s Developing Resilient Leaders chief of strategy, Col. Davidson currently works closely with Brig. Gen. Tanya Kubinec, the command’s DRL champion, and Col. Hal Linnean, the DRL co-champion, to chart the course for one of AFRC’s three strategic priorities – developing resilient leaders. The other two strategic priorities are prioritizing strategic depth and accelerating readiness, and reforming the organization. #ReserveResilient ■