Dying to Live: A First Sergeant's Account of Struggle and Healing
“There’s strength in speaking your truth,” said First Sgt. Gracie JP Williams. (Photo Credit: (Courtesy photo)) VIEW ORIGINAL

Have you ever felt like you had enough? Tired? Done? And you just want to shut off the noise in your head? Ever been beat down by life and felt like you could not go on? That is how First Sgt. Gracie JP Williams felt.

She Just Wanted the Noise to Stop

“The effects of OEF and OIF deployments were hard–triggers from the war, stress at work, no down time or time to rest, always on the go…it was a mental spiral. I don’t remember a lot of those years because I was too busy trying to survive,” said Williams.

The proud daughter of Haitian immigrant parents, Williams’ time spent in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps was a springboard to her lifelong dream of building a career she could be proud of by serving in the U.S. Army. “I was always fascinated with the military. I loved wearing the uniform and the sense of belonging. I loved that I could thrive,” said Williams.

But her journey in the Army was wrought with emotion. When she returned from her first of three deployments, she attempted to get help for the trauma she experienced.

“I saw dead bodies 360 days out of the year, and back then we were not provided immediate behavioral health assistance, because we were not 11 Bravos–we were not out in the field receiving fire, and there were not enough behavioral health staff to help us all,” said Williams. Even though she was physically removed, mentally she remained overseas on the airfield, still hearing IEDs, helicopters, and trucks. She knew her post-traumatic stress disorder reached an all-time high when as a passenger in a car she experienced a flashback. The scenery on the highway turned into the desert in Iraq and the driver had to immediately pull over because Williams was experiencing a panic attack.

Still, she did not receive the help she needed. “I felt like I couldn’t depend on anybody,” said Williams. When her work performance started to suffer, instead of receiving empathy and guidance from leadership, she was reprimanded, and her rank was threatened. She had reached her breaking point. She attempted suicide and died before being revived.

When she opened her eyes for the first time after her suicide attempt, she apologized for what she did to herself, and her Captain said; “Don’t apologize, I got you. I’m going to be there,” and she was.

When Williams was released from the hospital, she wasn’t prepared for the fight she would endure to truly live again.

Although she received an outpouring of love and support from her friends and Army Family, the lack of support and disconnect from some peers made the journey to recovery grim. Williams’ religious faith was questioned after her suicide attempt and fellow NCOs did not want to work with her. She had become a pariah. She knew the fight to save her career and rebuild her reputation was going to be challenging.

Her Sergeant Major set the precedent for her journey to healing and gave her the hope she needed to begin a transformation that would allow people to see her differently. “My Sergeant Major sat me down and said she believed that if I had gotten the help that I needed, the suicide attempt probably would not have happened. She did not let me sit there and just go through the process of being separated from the military. She said she was going to hold me accountable, ensure I receive the help I needed, and become who I was meant to be,” said Williams.

Every day, she committed to showing up physically, mentally, and emotionally; she committed to serving. According to Williams, the military was her reason for living, her reason for being. It was her identity.

Gracie Had to Choose Gracie

“Being in the military, you don’t have time to take a knee. I’m at the point in my life where I now realize I have to take time out for myself to recharge and take care of my mental and physical health. I have to be present for myself and for my daughter.”

Today, Williams has a village of support. Her daughter, her best friend, and military Family members who continue to have her back, who speak up for her, and who didn’t judge her actions because they knew her character. She has learned to better manage her stress and if she feels there is an imbalance, she talks to her doctor about it.

Though she occasionally has her internal battles, she has no desire to take her life again.

“Life is a journey. It’s not meant to be easy. But your life is meaningful, and your journey is purposeful,” said Williams.

She continues to be open and honest about her struggles and her experiences in hopes it will inspire someone who may be struggling too.

“I actually died to live,” said Williams. “I now have the courage to ask for help. It’s OK to ask for help.”

Williams’ Advice to Leadership:

·      Tell your troops they matter, they are important, and they are needed.

·      Follow up and follow through with action– start by making sure they are getting the help they need.

·      People with mental health struggles should be treated with dignity and respect; don't degrade them, they are not weak.

·      Be mindful of what you say and how you say it. Words matter.

·      If there’s an issue with performance, stick to the specific work issue; don’t make it personal.

·      Incorporate more mental well-being exercises.

·      Be there. Keep your word. Keep your promises. Do what you say you’re going to do.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health or having suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1, text 838255, or visit the Crisis Chat online: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/chat