“Facing Stigma” with Greg W.

“Almost everyone in my family has served. We cover every branch of the Armed Forces, but I was the first to become an officer. My original plan was to go to NC State and walk onto their football team. My rec league football coach and mentor asked me if I would consider West Point. It just so happened that a coach from West Point was recruiting in the area and offered me a full scholarship a few weeks later. However, the one thing I wasn’t prepared for was 9/11. It happened my freshman year and I can remember my mom calling and asking me to come home. I also remember looking outside my window at the campus and telling her I was there for a reason and I needed to see my commitment through. I’m proud that my class answered the call and stepped up because we could have left West Point and not received any backlash for leaving. I graduated and commissioned as an infantry officer. I also had another difficult decision to make; I was eligible for the NFL draft and had an opportunity to play, but after seeing what Pat Tillman did and going through what we went through as a freshman class, I knew I wanted to fight alongside them. I was a cycle or two behind my class when it came to deployment time and I was in a rush to catch up. As I was training and preparing to deploy, my best friend, Emily Perez, was killed by an explosive device. She was one of the highest ranking black female cadets at West Point and became the first black female officer to be killed in the OEF/OIF war. I was so hurt by the news that all I could think about was going over there and getting revenge. After some time passed and I was able to talk through and battle some of those emotions, I found a renewed love for the military and what we do. I deployed to Afghanistan about a year later in 2008 as part of a special forces unit.

Every day presented a different challenge over there. Whether it was fortifying base defenses, working logistics for the compound, or going after high-value targets, it was a lot of problem-solving. When I came back from my first deployment, they were seriously insisting soldiers take their downtime. I asked my commander to deploy me right away because my bags were already packed, but he insisted I take my downtime. I couldn’t leave, and within that time frame, the officer that I was supposed to be relieving ended up getting KIA’d during a peacekeeping mission we had set up. I escorted his body back to his family, and it was devastating. Between losing my best friend, getting hurt on that first deployment, and thinking that could’ve been me…it was a lot to process while on my second deployment. The tempo was so high; you don’t have time to process. You just focus on what’s the next mission. When I came back from that deployment, I ended up separating from the military due to PTSD and the injuries I sustained. At the same time, I was going through a tough time in my relationship, and my mom was diagnosed with Cancer. I had to figure out my life outside of the military, and everything was compounding on top of each other. Plus, I’m grieving the loss of my friends. That was the breaking point for me, and I found myself at the lowest point. I was suicidal and almost took my life. I was just tired of hurting. I was in physical and emotional pain. All of those things you think shouldn’t happen to good people end up happening to good people. I gave myself no choice but to figure it out. Military, corporate, entrepreneurship, going back to school, I tried it all. I found myself unhappy and unfulfilled that’s when I ended up walking away from a nice six-figure job and starting on this path of raising awareness for PTSD and complicated grief. I’ve been doing that since 2018, and this past year is when I kicked everything off. This year I’ll be doing a walk from Mound Bayou, Mississippi, through the south up to Washington, D.C., and then on to West Point, NY, to raise awareness for mental health. This era understands that our mental health is real, suicide is real, and that we can’t continue to not talk about it. From an individual standpoint and at a cultural level, we need to address mental health, and I just want to do my part to help someone along the way”