By Master Sgt. Stephen Schester -- a commentary
/ Published September 10, 2019
Chief Master Sgt. Stacy Gillman laughs with his coworkers before a group photo is taken at Camp Kamassa, Crystal Springs, Mississippi. (Master Sgt. Stephen Schester)
Chief Master Sgt. Stacy Gillman and his team laugh walking across a bridge that was built at Camp Kamassa in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. (Master Sgt. Stephen Schester)
Then Senior Master Sgt. Stacy Gillman holds his friend Aly Cole, who is 8 years old, blind and has a degree of autism. Gillman spends a lot of time with her when he is at Camp Kamassa in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. (Master Sgt. Stephen Schester)
Gilman worked as a police officer for 17 years before going into mortgage lending and real estate. (Courtesy photo)
I’ve been a photographer in the Air Force for 21 years now, and over that time I’ve met a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds. I’ve found that everybody has a story to tell, and occasionally I come across a story that really resonates with me. Chief Master Sgt. Stacy Gilman’s story is one of those stories.
I first met Gilman in July 2018 while I was covering the Air Force Reserve’s participation in an Innovative Readiness Training event in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. He was a senior master sergeant at the time, attached to the 439th Airlift Wing at Westover Air Reserve Base, Massachusetts, and the senior NCO in charge of overseeing construction at Camp Kamassa in Crystal Springs. Camp Kamassa is the future home for underprivileged and special needs kids.
In addition to being a Reserve Citizen Airman, he had served as a police officer for 17 years and at one time had been a major player in real estate in the Northeast.
With his Boston accent and straight-to-the point demeanor, I found him intriguing … and a little intimidating. After spending time with him over two weeks and interviewing him for this story, I found that Gilman was actually a very humble person who had experienced great heights of success and incredible depths of sadness. His lowest point was in 2007, when he came within seconds of taking his own life.
But before I go into his story, I have to tell part of my story as well. You see, I have also been to incredible depths of sadness and have struggled with mental health issues for many years. I would be lying if I had not contemplated suicide at some point in my personal struggles, but with years of therapy, emphasis on deep inner perspective and a belief in a higher power, it saved me from my own demons. I learned how to be resilient and a lot about the brain, the mind, psychology, human nature and so much more by trying to find answers to my problems.
As I tell Gilman’s story … and mine, that is the key to all of this – there are answers to every problem. No matter what life throws at you, there are always solutions.
Back to Gilman’s story. In 1999, wanting to provide a better life for his family and looking to supplement his income from his police officer job, he went into real estate and mortgage lending. Over the next few years, he found great success in his new endeavor. He owned a number of rental houses and an apartment complex with 150 units. He was able to buy a five-bedroom house for himself and his family and owned multiple cars and motorcycles. His success allowed him to leave the police force and pursue real estate full time. Life was good for the Gilmans.
Then, in 2007, the recession hit and the housing market crashed. Everything he had worked for over the past few years was suddenly gone. He lost his house, his vehicles, his rental properties and the apartment complex, “all of it with a stroke of a key,” he said. He cashed out his police department pension in hopes to cover his debts, but it wasn’t near enough. He was forced to file for bankruptcy and his wife, who enjoyed the great life he provided, threatened to leave him. He had hit rock bottom.
Gilman said he felt like a shell of his former self. “I couldn’t face my children. I couldn’t face my wife. I couldn’t face my father, who I hold near and dear to me. It was time to go. I was no benefit to anybody,” he said of his mindset at the time.
After leaving a meeting with his lawyer about his financial situation, he pulled over to the side of the road and pulled out his Glock 21 pistol, put the barrel in his mouth and finger on the trigger.
“I can tell you what a Glock 21 tastes like,” he said.
With the barrel in his mouth, his phone started to ring. He didn’t pick it up immediately, but it kept ringing. Something told him he should answer, so he put down the gun and picked up the phone. It was his father, who said he had a feeling that something wasn’t right.
“He knew something was wrong, he just didn’t know how bad,” Gilman said. He and his father had a heart-to-heart conversation that pulled Gilman out of the depths of despair and gave him enough hope and perspective to put the gun away.
In the hours following that phone conversation with his father, Gilman told himself he never let anything beat him before and he wasn’t going to start now.
“It took a little while, but I snapped out of it,” he said. “I’ve got two kids who depend on me and suicide is the most selfish thing you can do. You’re going to leave these two beautiful children behind and your mom and dad? They are the victims, not me. It’s just money,” he said.
In the ensuing years, he did what he had to do to get back to financial stability. He moved into a much smaller rental house, took on two part-time police officer jobs and rejoined the Air Force Reserve.
“We were very watchful of our money,” Gilman said of his new lifestyle, “and I slowly crawled out of it.”
Gilman is now a chief master sergeant assigned to the Reserve’s 560th RED HORSE Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. He’s happily remarried, in a great place mentally and still heavily involved with Camp Kamassa. He is even making plans to move to Mississippi to devote all his energy to the camp.
His perspective on mental health has changed since that day in 2007. He takes his role as a senior NCO very seriously when it comes to promoting resiliency among the lower ranks.
“I notice the little things now. I know when people have hard times and everybody has a story. … Everybody,” he said.
He has no qualms telling people about that day he nearly killed himself. If it helps someone along the way, it served its purpose.
Speaking of purpose, Gilman firmly believes God intervened that day. “I honestly feel in my heart of hearts He saved me that day,” he said. “Losing everything was just a test and an example of what not to do. He was saving me for bigger and better things.” Bigger things like seeing Camp Kamassa come to fruition and help whomever in their darkest hour, like he was that day on the side of the road.
Gilman is one example of strength and resiliency and what a person can do when he reaches his lowest point and realizes suicide is not the answer to life’s problems. It just creates more.
As for me, I still have days where my mind wanders to its darkest corners. I think that will always be a part of me, but I don’t allow its potency to develop. I also know those dark moments are fleeting and I’m responsible for the defense of negativity that wants to enter my mind.
What you choose to focus on is where your energy will go; so it’s important to focus on the positive. I’m not saying that when life is hard, and all you need to do is just think positive and it all goes away. That’s not realistic. What I’m saying is that each day you choose to change your perspective towards the positive, you develop a defense against the negative and you slowly erode the old self that did not serve you any purpose. I am an example of that.
With suicide rates rising, especially among military members and veterans, there is no greater time than now to arm yourself with knowledge. Seek to destroy the enemy that is poor mental health and all the casualties that come with it. Too many individuals have been lost to it already. And remember, suicide is not the answer and there is always a solution to a problem. How bad you want that solution is the challenge.
(Schester is assigned to the Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command public affairs office at Robins AFB, Georgia.)