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Personal tragedy leads chief to find purpose through Career Intermission Program

Chief Master Sgt. Laura Wilson

Air Force Reserve Chief Master Sgt. Laura Wilson, Director of Staff superintendent at Headquarters Air Reserve Personnel Center, poses for a photo at HQ ARPC, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, Dec. 20, 2019. Wilson was selected to participate in the Career Intermission Program, which will allow her to temporarily step away from her full-time military career for a few years to concentrate on a graduate program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, specializing in trauma therapy.

When those special people closest to us take their own lives, it often leaves us feeling alone, confused and wondering if there was more we could have done. In the military, it happens across all services, all components, all genders and all ranks. The higher we climb in rank, the more “put together” we are expected to be. That’s not easy to do as a human being. Regardless of how incredible our military careers become on the outside, we are humans first on the inside. 

One Air Force Reserve chief, known by family and friends as the “strong one - the one who succeeded and went somewhere” knows this push-pull feeling all too well.

“After the death of my father I reached a point of total surrender,” said Chief Master Sgt. Laura Wilson, director of staff superintendent at Headquarters Air Reserve Personnel Center, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado.

Wilson received a phone call from her mother June 28, 2019 with the news of her father committing suicide. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time she experienced a loss like this. No fewer than three years earlier, her brother, and only sibling, took his life on Christmas Eve of 2016.

“What that means is that literally one half of my immediate family is gone – to suicide,” she said. “It’s a hard thing to explain. Death is very difficult for anyone. Suicide takes on a whole different life of its own – the range of emotions, the anger, the sadness, and at times, rage. The questions. Oh, the endless questions.”

While it certainly took a great mental toll on her, Wilson said she eventually came to peace with what had happened in her family. Not the kind of peace that wipes away the sadness, but more so that she came to terms with knowing their deaths weren’t her fault.

From tragedy, humans are often moved to take on positive, life-changing events. For Wilson, she is motivated more now than ever before to realize her own dream of helping victims of trauma, across the spectrum from domestic abuse to substance abuse, suicide and beyond. She had thought of ways to make this dream a reality, but was also enjoying her military career. How could she do both, she wondered.

The answer came to her one weekend in August not long after her father’s death. She said the letters C-I-P entered her mind. At the time, she couldn’t quite recall what they stood for or why she was thinking about them, so she did some research and came across the DoD Career Intermission Program. In doing so initially, she didn’t think someone with her rank as a reservist could qualify. But as she dug deeper, she discovered she did qualify. With this newfound information, Wilson had a specific path in mind – a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, specializing in Trauma therapy.

The CIP was designed to provide select service members the opportunity for a one-time temporary transition from active duty to the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) to deal with hardships or accomplish goals outside of their service. Program participants are then provided a seamless return to active duty after a minimum period of one year away, but with an absence of no more than three years. The long-term intent of the Air Force CIP is to retain the valuable experience and training of airmen that might otherwise be lost by permanent separation.

Wilson and her family discussed the idea, before she was even accepted, of what this would mean for her family. Her husband, who had done some graduate studies himself, knows the commitment his wife has ahead and is prepared to fully support her goals, even if it means going down to just one income for a family of six.

CIP participants receive 1/15 of their base each month throughout the program, and her family will maintain medical/health benefits and base privileges (i.e. commissary, fitness center), according to the CIP DoD Instruction.

Ahead of knowing about the program, the chief’s family made a conscientious effort to clear virtually all of their debt, which she said set them up even better and eased their minds about her leaving a full-time military career.

“Once we made the decision together that I was going to apply for this program, it’s as if everything fell into place so perfectly, so smoothly. There was peace about this decision from the beginning—still not knowing if we’d be approved,” she said.

In late November she received her official approval. This wasn’t merely an approval to start a program, but also an “approval” to help her address a lifelong notion that her pain was insignificant.

“For the better part of 20 years of my own life, I chalked up my own experiences as nothing special since we all have journeys,” said Wilson.

She persevered in life and throughout her military career to consistently have gratitude for the good things that were happening all around her, even with painful past experiences not yet healed or even realized. 

“I’ve been able to work hard and continually develop myself and wonderful things have come, but the one thing—probably the biggest thing—that I can finally admit to, is that I spent so many years back-pocketing my painful experiences,” she said. “And in my mind I would say, ‘You’ve got to get on with gettin’ on. You’ve got a great life. You’ve got a great family. You’ve got a great husband. You have four amazing children! Why continue to feel bad or sorry?’ I couldn’t escape a feeling inside of me that still wasn’t whole, but I couldn’t understand what that was.”

Entering into the CIP will be a part of the process to make her feel whole and truly help others, both military and civilians alike, in a capacity she’s excited to be a part of in the realm of mental health.

“There’s a part of me that has always known deep down what my purpose was, but then superficially I felt indecisive to a degree,” said Wilson. “I believe it was because I didn’t want to delve into those waters; I didn’t want to feel pain. I know I didn’t want to feel the pain. I wanted to get on with gettin’ on. Just work hard. Get educated. Be that good wife. Be that good mother. But yet, I could feel something was still missing.”

That “missing something” would soon be realized after finding out she qualified for the CIP. The opportunity to concentrate on her masters full-time will help Wilson finally achieve a different kind of purpose outside of her family, her faith and her military occupation.

“The deaths of my brother and father woke me up,” she said. “I feel like a prime candidate to possibly help people come out of the darkness, help them realize they don’t have to back pocket their painful experiences as I did. It’s okay to feel.”

Wilson said she has always been curious about the brain and how it operates, especially with how thoughts are connected to emotions and feelings. There are two therapies she has experienced firsthand that she believes could help people work through their pain and traumas effectively, safely and sometimes even quickly. She explained that these therapies, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brainspotting (BSP), aren’t intended to erase painful memories, but to teach the brain to not be chained by them.

“This has been a gift to me and now it’s a gift I want to give to other people,” she said.

In the same month the chief received the news of her acceptance into the CIP, she also became eligible for retirement. This meant she had two choices to make – participate in the CIP and have a commitment to the Air Force Reserve upon completion of her graduate studies, or retire and be 100 percent free of any military obligations going forward.

“There was such a large part inside me that feels I have so much more to give to the military,” Wilson said. “I also have something to contribute within the mental health community.

“I feel as though this has been somewhat of a calling in my adult life. I’ve known all along that I want to help people in a deeply meaningful and authentic way.”