JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md., March 10, 2020 —
Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Daniels was no stranger to stage fright. So, when the polite round of applause from the sea of senior NCOs beckoned him to the stage, he wasn't surprised by his ensuing anxiety. As he began addressing the crowd, the familiar question stuck in the background of his mind: "Does anyone else notice?”
He became increasingly aware of the moisture building on his palms with every gesture. The pounding that first seemed to shake the theater walls started to rattle his ear drums. This was no ordinary speech for the command chief of the 11th Wing.
After a deep breath, he continued speaking in generalities about the importance of resilience, faithfully following the bullets on his slideshow. He felt his eyes dart from face to face in the crowd, then to the cursed podium across the stage. He knew it was time to transition from the generic slides to the ones that would force him to relive the tragedy that brought him to the stage in the first place.
He paused. He breathed. He told the story of how his life, family and career were forever changed by the sudden suicide of his only daughter.
Fast asleep at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, the florescent light and constant buzzing of his phone stirred Daniels awake. Then it stopped. Reaching over to the nightstand, he was just able to make out the glowing "2:00 a.m." on the screen. Then the phone started ringing again.
“Hello?” Daniels said, half-awake.
First was his wife, Sharlene, frantically trying to communicate. Within a few moments, all he could focus on was the quick quiet jargon of emergency medical technicians, clashing with the familiar verbal codes transmitting though the radios of Security Forces Airmen -- all coming through the phone in his ear. Then, the mottled voices of his family friends joined the cacophony. They were trying to speak for his wife, but couldn’t drown her hysteric cries.
“She’s so cold! She's so cold!” Sharlene sputtered into the phone.
As Daniels listened on, the hairs on his neck rose and his heartbeat joined the audible chaos between his ears. As he pieced things together, the news struck him like lightning.
Their 20-year-old daughter had taken her own life.
Just two days following the call, Daniels was in California standing at a lectern with eulogy in hand and his daughter's casket to his left.
Less than a month later, he stood on stage next to the new commander of Joint Base Andrews and took on the role of the installation's command chief master sergeant.
A year later, he finally shared his story with a room full of fellow senior NCOs. And now, with only a handful of months before his assignment ends, he agreed to a request from public affairs to share his story even more.
“Now we’re here,” Daniels said with a shrug. “And in hindsight, I should've asked for time off … but for some reason I found it really important to be here. My military mindset kicked in, and I saw everything as a mission. But I'll be quite honest: Once we got here, we struggled. I started to feel like I was failing. I was failing as the command chief. Now I feel like I'm more engaged and more involved, and I still have bad days, but there are less bad days than there were before.”
Editor's note: The below transcription is a truncated summary of the interview for those who wish to read the Chief's own words.
(Click to watch entire video interview.)
Public Affairs: Why do you want to tell this story?
Thomas Daniels: It's a tough story tell, but we're all human beings. We all go through things. We all have obstacles, tragedies, things we need to overcome.
PA: How did the tragedy affect you in the beginning?
TD: You know, after I got the call, I waited till dawn and walked to my commander's house to try to explain to him what had happened and that I needed to get out of there. I needed to be there for my wife. When I left his house --man, I dropped to my knees in the middle of the street, and I sobbed. I know because of past post-deployment issues and just job stress, I knew that this was going to be something that I was going to need help with -- professional help with. So I went over to the mental health clinic. … The Air Force is a family to me, and in times of my struggles, there were people honestly, throughout the world that reached out to my family and did things that we needed. And you don’t necessarily expect it, but people will jump to action for you. Having that community around us enabled us to get through. Any Airman that was going through a tragedy like that, we would do that for. People are going to wrap their arms around them and take care of them.
PA: How does the tragedy affect you today?
TD: It's something you ever thought you would have to do, but I had to write out a eulogy for my daughter. It was a very small service, but I sat next to a podium with my daughter right next to me. So now I have a hard time speaking at a podium because it puts me in the same spot. So when I gave my son's tech school graduation speech, I didn’t stand behind a podium. I wrote the speech and memorized it. I didn’t realize that would be a problem for me. … PCSing for me was almost like a mission. You know my mission was to get to Andrews and be there for Colonel Purath's change of command. It was a very tight timeline. There was a lot going on. We lost our daughter on June 6, and we left California on June 30, and in between then, we went to our son's graduation. On July 5, we signed into our home here.
PA: What did you take away from your time seeing a counselor?
TD: Every two weeks, I had an appointment there. I learned that I need to give myself a break. I’ve always had high expectations for myself, and I’ve always been driven and motivated. But you know, because I was grieving, I wasn’t able to bring the same joy or motivation as the 11th Wing Command Chief should. … There were times I would be in a one-hour meeting, and the whole meeting my mind was somewhere else at home, and I really don’t know what we talked about. That's a little bit hard as the command chief to admit that.
PA: What did you learn about grief and how to handle it in this position?
TD: I learned that grief isn’t linear. It's not a smooth straight line. I learned that something can happen, you can see something, something can remind you of it, and you can almost start over.
PA: What drove you to want to get better and how did you do it?
TD: We decided we don’t like where we were at. Physically, mentally, spiritually. We were ready to improve ourselves in all those areas, so we committed to eating healthier, a more intense workout regimen, and to focusing on more positive things. Once we did that, we started to feel a little bit better about ourselves. You have plenty of chances to call it in, to eat poorly, and not work out, and I was making those excuses, and it wasn’t allowing me to get over my grief. So we said, "Hey, we're gonna make this commitment together." And once we did that, things started to change. I wasn’t going to start writing down goals the day after my daughter died and say, "Oh, I'm gonna do this or that," because it was truly just trying to get through the day. But if you get to the point where you never set goals again, then what am I going to work toward? You have to have personal goals, you have to have something you're striving for. I started seeing improvements almost immediately because I made the decision to get better and move forward again.
PA: If you had an Airman who was going through this, what would your expectation for them be?
TD: I would expect they would have a hard time, and that we would have to be there for them, and it would be a long time before they would get through it. I would not expect someone else to be at his or her peak performance for a while. [Also,] giving them space and making sure they have the resources they need. If it's a bad day, we have to give them the space to deal with the thing they're going through. It may not be a whole day -- it may be an hour or two -- but we've got to give them the space. I learned throughout the years that happy, healthy Airmen do a better job, and if you force somebody that's not happy or heathy to do the job, you're not going to get peak performance. So, we have to help people in those situations get back to where they're happy and heathy. It's continuous. The grieving process isn’t linear, and you kinda keep working through it. Communication's the biggest part. … I was very honest with my leadership, and they said if you need time, take time. And if it was a bad day at mental health, and I needed to take the rest of the day off, I talked to my leadership, and they said, "Go. Take time." A lot of times, I went into a Colonel Purath's office, closed the door, and told him how I feel. And he never tried to solve my problems -- he just heard me out, and that day maybe I didn’t need to go to mental health. I would talk to Colonel Purath for 15 minutes, and I would feel better. And if [leadership] didn’t give that support, it would have been a lot harder because I would have forced myself into something that I think would've fallen into a deeper depression. But the fact that they were so warm and so caring -- they carried me for a handful of months when I probably wasn't meeting their expectations, but they were kind enough not to say it. But they also understood what I was going through.