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Healing the wounds that can’t be seen

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Erin McClellan
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Nine deployments, severe depression, anxiety and alcoholism, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a suicide attempt, were what drove one McConnell Airman to begin a journey to reshape his life.

“My first combative deployment was to Kirkuk, Iraq, back in 2006,” said Tech. Sgt. Terrance Williams, 22nd Security Forces Squadron resources NCO in-charge. “I had deployed three times prior to that, but my first one to Kirkuk was probably when I really started having issues. That deployment was an eye-opener. It was the first time I had been in a combat zone, and I saw a lot of bad things happen.”

After that first combative deployment, Terrance went on five more back-to-back deployments to combat locations. Although at the time he thought he was handling the stress well, Terrance now looks back and realizes he ignored a few warning signs.

“You get used to it,” he said. “Your mind almost gets numb to it, but you don’t realize sometimes until way later that you’re actually having issues. That’s when drinking became my vice; I would drink every day, and it wasn’t just one drink‒ it was drinking until I either passed out or fell asleep with a beer in my hand. That went on for more than ten years.”

His problems also took a toll on his family.

“It was very difficult,” said his wife, retired Master Sgt. Nichol Williams. “It was very hard having to walk on egg shells, not knowing if he was going explode or not. He was an alcoholic and I was an enabler. I would allow him to drink just to have somewhat of a calm environment. It's hard to explain what PTSD is to children. I would hide it from them as best as I could. I would say [things like], ‘Daddy's not feeling well; let's just leave Daddy alone.’”

On Feb. 23, 2016, Terrance finally reached his breaking point.

“Last year, I hit rock bottom and actually tried to commit suicide,” he said. “I had been battling depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms for the past ten years, and it finally got to the point where I tried to do the worst that a person could possibly do.”

After the suicide attempt, Terrance spent five days in a psychiatric ward and another 22 in inpatient care for his alcoholism. To be able to stay in the Air Force, there were steps he had to complete, which included completing Cognitive Processing Therapy with the mental health office on base.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “When I first went there, I hated the program, I hated [my therapist], I hated mental health and I hated everyone there. It was just because I wasn’t allowing myself to be helped. I didn’t know how to be helped yet.”

Midway through the 12-week program, Terrance had a breakthrough. During an outing with his family, he sat in a restaurant with his back to the entrance without worrying that something would happen, which was something he was unable to do before the therapy sessions.

“All I was worried about was what we were eating for dinner and the conversations that we had,” he said. “It was the best outing in a long time. We were laughing and joking, and I didn’t have any mood swings that night. It was just a great evening with my family at a place that had a lot of windows, and I wasn’t worried about anything but my family in front of me. That was huge.”

The support of his family, especially his wife, was one of the key aspects of his recovery.

“Way before [the suicide attempt], she knew there was something wrong with me,” said Terrance. “She just didn’t know how to get me where I am today, and I wouldn’t have allowed her to even if she would’ve known the process.

“I used to resent her for how much she loved me. I never understood why she loved and cared for me so much. When I was at the psychiatric ward, I hated everybody. I hated my wife, and I told her how much I hated her when she came and visited me. Even after all those hateful things I spewed at her, she never gave up on me. I’m here today because she never gave up on me.”

Nichol said she stuck by Terrance through his hard times because she knew he needed her help, even if he didn’t know it at the time.

“I loved him from the moment I met him,” said Nichol. “Even in our early years, I knew his heart better than he did. But after his first combative deployment in 2006, I saw him turning into a man I hated. I just wanted to save him from himself, but he did everything to push me away. When I looked at him and saw this hateful, angry man in so much pain, I didn't think of myself, only him. The more he wanted me to leave, the more I wanted to stay and get him the help he needed.”

Along with the therapy and the support from his wife, Terrance found refuge in the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, which provides personalized care, services and advocacy to wounded, ill or injured service members and their caregivers and families.

His first event with AFW2 was a camp at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, where he was chosen to compete in the 2017 Air Force Wounded Warrior Trials at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Out of the 132 competitors there, he was one of 40 chosen to advance to the Department of Defense Warrior Games, which will be held June 30-July 9. He will compete in wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and two track events.

“I went to my first event back in January, and it was probably the best thing I could’ve done,” said Williams. “These events are fun to go to, but it’s just amazing the therapy you get along with it. You get to share your story, listen to other people’s stories and just lean on each other and help each other out. The greatest thing was just being around those people who have been through the same trials and tribulations I’ve been going through.”

AFW2 has also helped Nichol learn to better help Terrance.

“I can't believe how much the AFW2 has helped me,” said Nichol. “They taught me that what I do for my husband is important and not to underestimate myself, that being his caregiver is huge in his healing process. I have a huge support system with other caregivers and the AFW2 staff that I couldn't find elsewhere. No one else knew what I went through, but they did.”

Terrance has come a long way during the past year, and he’s learned some valuable lessons during his journey. He hopes he can help others who may be facing similar obstacles.

“Help is there,” he said. “I wish I would’ve gotten help earlier, and I might not be so late in the game. We can’t always do things on our own. I wish I would’ve listened to my wife a long time ago. She had always encouraged me to go and get help and I chose not to. Listen to those signs that are telling you that you might have an issue. If you have any doubt in your mind that you might need to go seek help from professionals in the medical field for anything, go do it now and don’t wait.”