KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
That’s how the saying goes.
If Master Sgt. James Rials, retired production supervisor for the 803rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron here, was a book, his cover would give off the impression of someone who has worked hard his whole life. You might notice his wedding ring; a devoted husband. You may be able to glean from the lines on his face and his mildly calloused hands that his nearly 40-year road to retirement from the Air Force Reserve was no cake walk, but to what extent, a cover can never say.
Within the pages that make up his life lies a harrowing story of a man reaching rock bottom and the brave climb out of despair.
Nearly a decade ago, everything was seemingly falling apart for Rials.
His marriage, his health, his outlook on life in general were all dwindling.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” said Rials. “Depression is like this insidious event that takes hold of you and you don’t see it coming until it has you.”
At work, Rials said he was just going through the motions. Acting as if everything was fine. Nobody needed to know about the depression seeping through. He was a fixer. If he could fix a multi-million-dollar aircraft he could fix himself.
But sometimes, when it rains--it pours.
In 2009, days before he was set to leave for a deployment, Rials woke up to severe pain in his abdomen. He knew something was not right, so he asked his wife to take him to the hospital.
The diagnosis: kidney stones. Big kidney stones. The base urologist drew up a plan for two procedures to, essentially, crush up the stones to make them passable, and while his departure for his deployment would be delayed a couple weeks, he would still be good to go.
The first procedure went well, but during the second, the laser used to perform the surgery went off course and caused complications, so they would have to finish the kidney stones off with a third visit. The doctor assured Rials everything was fine, but in the days following, he endured serious discomfort.
“The night before I was supposed to return to the doctor for a checkup, I was shaking,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. I was nauseous and had chills and my body was starting to hurt from the uncontrollable shaking. I was scared.”
Despite his condition, including swelling on one side of his torso, the doctor saw no real reason for concern and sent him on his way.
That swiftly changed, though. The doctor called later that evening and informed Rials that he needed to get back to the hospital because his white blood cell count was at 32,000 indicating an infection. For comparison, a person’s normal white blood cell is around 4,500 to 11,000. Rials, who lives in Grand Bay, Alabama, put off the doctor’s request until the morning and by that time his pain had increased ten-fold.
What the CT scan found at the hospital was both alarming and astonishing. The laser had actually severed his ureter tube resulting in all the waste that was meant to go to his kidney to spill out and resulted in nearly two liters of septic fluid accumulating in Rials’s body.
“The hospital’s infectious disease doctor came in and I’ll never forget what he said,” said Rials. “He said, ‘Well, I’m not going to lie to you, you’re pretty sick. You’re about as septic as I’ve seen, but if you make it through the next 12 hours, you might have a chance.’”
Given the prognosis of the next 12 hours determining whether he lives or dies, one would think this is the “horrifying experience to epiphany to getting life on track” part of the story, but Rials was not there yet.
He made it through the 12 hours and then 12 more. After 36 hours on what he described as a “cocktail of antibiotics” his white blood cell count leveled out and began to drop.
For the purpose of drainage, tubes had to be inserted into his kidney and chest areas, and the location of the tubes were on just the right combination of nerves to cause Rials to lose feeling in his left leg.
“On top of everything else, what is this?” he kept asking himself.
The nerve damage caused numbness on the inside of his leg, but on the outside, it had the complete opposite effect. Rials likened the pain to “a hot rebar” being stuck in his leg. Only time and rehab would determine if the nerve damage would go away.
After a month and a half in the hospital, the doctors finally decided Rials could finish his recovery and rehab at home, and that’s where the real trouble started—as if he hadn’t had enough already.
“I was isolated,” said Rials. “All of my peers and friends had gone to the desert, and my wife worked every day, so I was just home by myself a lot. The only person aside from my mom that would come to see me was my priest every Wednesday. I knew I was in a very bad spot, but I wasn’t saying anything even to him.”
Rials knew he was headed for divorce, which meant he would probably lose his house. He was also sure the Air Force would not keep him, and on top of this emotional strife was the physical pain he was still dealing with from his medical saga.
“The doctor felt really guilty about what happened, and so he never questioned me each week when I said I needed a refill of the painkillers he prescribed me,” said Rials. “I was eating them like candy. Two worked for a while, then it was four, then six and so on. Nothing helped. The pain was unbearable.”
In comes the true rock bottom.
After weeks filled with pain, both physical and emotional, and sleep deprivation, Rials had had enough.
“One night, I just thought to myself, there is no chance I am going to come away from all of this. I have no hope,” he said. “I’m done.”
When Rials had first returned home from the hospital, his mom had asked his wife to take all of their firearms out of their house, but she missed one. He had intentionally stashed it away.
“I took that weapon out and there was nothing. No feelings. I was done,” said Rials. “I pulled the hammer back and I put the Taurus .357 Revolver in my mouth and all I could think of was the mess I was about to make for my wife. I slowly started to pull the trigger and as I did, I heard a voice and it said, ‘Jimmy, no.’”
Once more he heard, “Jimmy, no.” Nobody had called him by that name in years. He thought it sounded like his father, who had passed a few years before. Or maybe it was divine intervention.
Whoever or whatever it was, he listened and proceeded to release pressure off of the trigger and reset the hammer and stashed the gun back where he got it, and he said all he could do was lay down and cry himself to sleep.
The next morning, Rials said he acknowledged that he still had the same pain and the same problems, but he also had a glimmer of hope for the first time in a long time. He stopped taking the prescribed medication entirely despite still being in pain, and started the long journey of getting his life back on track. First, he finally confided in someone: his priest.
No road to recovery is easy and one step involved the dissolution of his marriage.
Another huge step concerned his military career. With the severity of his health issues, Rials thought for sure he would be handed his walking papers, but an appeal to a medical review board all the way in San Antonio allowed him to continue to serve.
Continue to serve he did. Over the years, Rials confided in very few people about what he went through. One of those people was the 403rd Wing’s director of psychological health, Nicole Mayzner. He expressed the desire to share his story, but she wanted to make sure he was really ready.
In September 2019, Rials heard former Air Force Spouse of the Year Kristen Christy speak at a commander’s call and his calling to share strengthened. Hearing Christy’s story of her own family’s tragedy, her husband’s suicide, led Rials to the realization of the potential impact sharing a story that didn’t end could have.
Mayzner described Rials as someone who had a positive effect on everyone he came into contact with, which when you’re at one job for nearly four decades that comes to be a lot of people. She said that his story is a good reminder to just be kind because you never know what someone is going through.
“Hearing his story and his outlook the next morning of ‘My problems are still here but so am I’ and how he talked about all the things he wouldn’t have experienced was something that I thought would be very impactful,” said Mayzner. “He was very adamant to share his experience before he retired and the more we talked about it the more I felt he would be an awesome person to have share their story.”
He established his legacy in the twilight of his Air Force career. Part of his motivation to come forward with his story was the recognition of the same symptoms and situations he faced in two of his peers. He didn’t want them to make the same mistake he did of trying to handle it alone.
“My mission here is to let my fellow Air Force Reserve members know that you’re not alone,” said Rials. “Just say something. Whether it’s your first sergeant, your supervisor, a coworker, your best buddy. Just say something. Don’t stand alone. There are all kinds of help that can be there for you, you just have to ask for it.”
With his retirement in December, this chapter of the book of James Rials is over, but it is the fact that there will be more chapters to come that is most important.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide do not hesitate to use any of the following resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 Military Crisis press 1, text at 838255, or online support: www.veteranscrisisline.net
Military OneSource Crisis Line: 1-800-342-9647; Online support: www.militaryonesource.mil
Defense Center of Excellence Help Line: 1-866-966-1020
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
For more psychological health resources, contact Ms. Mayzner at 228-806-0913 or firstname.lastname@example.org