Underneath the uniform:Fort Carson leader discovers inner perseverance

By Pvt. Ashton EmptyJune 18, 2019

Author Steve Maraboli once wrote, "Life doesn't get easier or more forgiving; we get stronger and more resilient."

One Fort Carson leader knows the truth of that statement first-hand.

Growing up an only child, Staff Sgt. Terence James always got what he wanted rather easily at home. But growing up in of New York City, where even looking at someone wrong could lead to problems, James had to toughen himself emotionally and physically to fit in as a New Yorker.

He led a pretty charmed life, and things came easy for him, so easy in fact that he earned a baseball scholarship and majored in music at Virginia University. But the freedom and new experience of college got the better of him. As an undisciplined young adult, James fell off track, and his grades tanked. Within the same year, he lost his scholarship, leaving school full of guilt and regret.

"I had forgot that college was for people going to school trying to get an education, not just partying and having fun," said James.

With nothing to fall back on, James was subjected to scrutiny from his family. James' grandfather approached him with concern and sincerity. He asked the million dollar question, "What now?"

"I don't know," James answered.

Not wanting his grandchild to go down the wrong path, he suggested James join the Army, like he had done as well as James' father before him. With not many options lined up, James contacted a recruiter and two weeks later left on a coach bus for Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, ready to start his initial entry training as a combat engineer in 1991.

His time and experience at Fort Leonard Wood was tough, harsh and challenging, but it was nothing compared to what he'd go through in the years to come.

While the Army and its benefits can sound promising and fulfilling to those who join, this wasn't the case for James. After his first contract, James left the Army in 1993, deciding not to reenlist.

"I was 23 years old, and being in the Army I really couldn't do whatever I wanted, like going out and living my life the way I wanted," James said. "The Army just wasn't for me."

He moved to Louisiana with his wife and young son to become a mortgage broker. This was a pipe dream with a short fuse as Hurricane Katrina struck, forcing James and his family to relocate to Atlanta, where they desperately tried to continue their business there.

"We had to figure out how to live," James said. "Times were hard, especially since no one wanted to hire us."

In the midst of financial hardship, he and his wife separated, leaving him to become a single parent. Single-parenthood presented a new wave of challenges that he just couldn't handle. It wasn't until he saw a certain commercial that a possible way out of his rabbit hole presented itself.

"Are you Army strong?"

In 2005, at the age of 32, James contacted a recruiter, and once again became an active-duty Soldier in the United States Army. James enlisted in order to find a viable solution for his current personal life dilemmas, but upon reentering the Army, a fresh set of issues greeted James with a hot welcome.

"Being an older Soldier is tough," said James. "I sometimes have to work two or three times harder to match the energy of those younger Soldiers."

This challenge created a transition to some of the darkest times James would experience.

Stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, in 2009, for the first time, James' downward spiral began. While going through financial issues and raising his son alone, he was informed that his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

James tried to push through his personal issues, attempting to not let it affect his duty as a Soldier. However, even that proved difficult. He said he felt out of place and indifferent.

"I didn't feel like I was a part of the team," James said. "I felt singled out, because I was older and just wasn't like the rest of the guys. It put me at a point where I just didn't feel worthy."

James was a new noncommissioned officer and although he was in a leadership position, he didn't actually agree with the way his leaders lacked compassion for him as a Soldier and person.

"My NCO showed me no empathy or care," James said.

With everything piling up and his only escape from his problems merging into one possible solution, James broke.

"My first time here in Fort Carson was the most trying time I ever had in my Army career," James said. "I tried to commit suicide."

James had reached the lowest point in his life. Holding his loaded weapon to his mouth, he tried to end it all. It might have been the end of Terence James if it wasn't for a comrade, or better known in the Army as a "battle buddy," who spotted him and stopped him from going through with it.

The lowest point in James' life also became his new start - the redemption.

Even though he was at his end, ready to take his own life, what followed is what started him on a new path.

James was relinquished of all weaponry and had to attend sessions at behavioral health. James had to attend resiliency classes which had such an impact on him that he continued to go even after he was no longer required to. This is what led James to getting involved with master resiliency training.

"MRT was the best thing that ever happened to my career and life," he said.

Now a promotable staff sergeant on his third assignment to Fort Carson, he serves as an MRT instructor at U. S. Army Garrison.

Showing Soldiers a more positive way to go about handling their issues was something he yearned to do, after dealing with what he experienced. James said he feels like it is part of his duty.

"His teaching is so effective and relatable to everyone," said retired 1st Sgt. Anthony Davis, who served as a mentor for James when he needed it most. "Because he speaks from experience, something like a poster child."

"I love impacting Soldiers," James said. "Love to help guide them the right way and in the right direction."

It was a process in which James had to reach rock bottom to see that he was being overwhelmed and needed a better way to handle things.

James once described himself as "selfish" and "prideful," but has shown great change and growth, he said, so much so that James sacrifices his own time to voluntarily search for a Soldier who went missing on a training exercise who was all but a stranger to him.

"Never leave a fallen comrade," James said, quoting the Army warrior ethos.

While James teaches many MRT classes for his current unit, he has developed a method to "help jog himself out of being a Soldier."

"At the end of every day, I call my son," James said. "I call my son, because I know he is not going to call me Sergeant James; he's going to call me 'Dad.'"

"James is committed to the military lifestyle, but has found a balance between it and his personal life where he is able to shut it off and be active in the civilian world," said Davis. "We talk about a lot of things like sports, families, and even cooking."

"Underneath this uniform we are all people just alike," James said.

Although James was once looked at as a bad Soldier, leader, and individual, he has risen higher than he ever thought possible.

James is on track to finish his bachelor's degree in leadership and will then work on getting his master's in leadership.

"I have a refuse-to-lose attitude, and it helps me keep my drive going," he said.

Aside from being an MRT instructor, he is also an equal opportunity representative and a sexual harassment/assault response coordinator. And he has a new broadening assignment to look forward to as he was selected to attend drill sergeant school this October.

"He's exceeded all expectations I had of him," said Davis. "There were times where he's helped me out when I was down."

Staff Sgt. James hasn't been the perfect Soldier, but his life experience has shaped him into the Soldier and leader he is today.

"Leadership isn't just yelling at people and telling them to do push-ups," James said. "It's teaching people how to be better people and better Soldiers."