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Grief, Growth, & Gratitude: My resilience journey

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Tony Lawrence
  • 673d Medical Support Squadron

Resilience is a term that we as Airmen and Guardians are all too familiar with. But what does it really mean? For some, resilience is an overused buzzword that has lost its potency. The last time I attended a mandatory resilience brief, the audience’s attitude of indifference was unmistakable - yet not surprising. Though these well-intentioned efforts are meant to equip people with useful tools, where we often fail is in making a human connection.

I believe the true value of resilience lies in the opportunity to grow from our personal struggles and leverage those experiences to help others. Finding the strength to share our stories of adversity, perseverance, and ultimate victory reassures them that they are not alone and illustrates what is possible even when the odds seem insurmountable.

Here’s my story …

For me, 2023 started off on a high note and was trending upward both professionally and personally. I graduated from the National War College in June and was off to second-time squadron command at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER, in Alaska. My wife, Shannon, and I had spent a few months enjoying a calmer schedule, reconnecting with some of our closest friends, and making new ones. Additionally, our oldest daughter, Megan, had recently graduated nursing school and was flourishing on her own. We left Washington, D.C., with full hearts and eager anticipation for the upcoming Alaska adventure. There was no way to foresee that only a month later, our world would be shattered, and I would find myself in a downward spiral.

On July 10, shortly after 8 p.m., we were notified that my 14-year-old daughter, and only biological child, Dori, had taken her own life. Since she lived with her mother in Alabama, and the circumstances were significantly magnified due to the geographical distance from the rest of our family, our initial reaction was devastation, shock, and utter denial.

While the intensity of these emotions has now become more manageable, we still experience them at times along with unpredictable episodes of guilt and anger. Upon receiving the news, Shannon called my boss, since I was unable to compose myself enough to speak. My boss had also just arrived at JBER and had not yet assumed command. However, we had served together at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and in D.C. She was someone I trusted, and she continues to be one of my biggest supporters.

Accompanying her to our home that evening were our group chief, my senior enlisted leader, and the chaplain. What transpired is all a blur, but they rallied around us to ensure that we were on a midnight flight for the grueling trip back to Alabama.

Upon returning to JBER, the first sergeant and chaplain served as our lifelines with daily check-ins and offers of assistance. Both my boss and wing commander encouraged me to take the time I needed before returning to work. Our medical group colleagues stopped by every evening and provided a two-week meal train, which they wanted to continue, had we not run out of storage space.

“My ongoing resilience journey has reinforced that resilience is not passive. Resilience requires action - it is a very deliberate and continuous process.”

– U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Lawrence

The outpouring of love and support Shannon and I received from our 673rd Medical Support Squadron family was indescribable. Some shared their own stories and personal setbacks, which included five teammates who had lost loved ones to suicide. Other squadron members wrote notes, poems, or simply stopped by to talk. Most just continued to be present and offer assurance that they would stand in the gap as we navigated the hardest season of our lives.

In the early stages, I hit rock bottom, battled depression, and became increasingly reclusive - something very foreign for an extrovert like me who thrives off engaging with other people. Conversely, I also experienced a measure of love, support, and understanding that could never be replicated within any other institution outside of our Air Force.

Though it is impossible to capture six months of peaks and valleys, I am finally feeling like myself again.

My ongoing resilience journey has reinforced that resilience is not passive. Resilience requires action - it is a very deliberate and continuous process. Some of the challenges I encountered earlier in life prepared me for the challenges of today. Likewise, the lessons that I am learning now will undoubtedly strengthen my resolve for the future. A close friend recently told me that, “Grief is not something that you move past. You learn to move with it.”

Below are the key components of my journey that are helping me progress towards resilience one day at a time.


Connection builds trust, and trust creates a safe environment where people feel supported and comfortable asking for help. Upon taking command, building connectedness and inclusivity was one of my top priorities.

This endeavor has encompassed numerous squadron gatherings, on- and off-duty, and a concerted effort to merge our families into the squadron. Activities have included group hikes, football games, celebrations, and seasonal events. Though we had established a new morale committee to support our Airmen, I never anticipated being a primary beneficiary of the time we have spent together.

In addition to the relationships forged with my work family, connection has involved various excursions with Shannon and recurring coffee talks with a very small, but special group of people I call “My Circle.” Most are individuals we have met along our Air Force journey, and although we share that affiliation, what I relish most are the conversations about life.

Over the years, their guidance has made me a better Airman, a better leader, and most importantly a better person. They have celebrated with our family during the best of times and now they walk beside us during the most difficult period to date.

Positive Mindset

From an early age, I was taught that the battle is won or lost in your mind. Thoughts drive action and action drives outcomes. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “the most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears,” and I feel strongly that this idea is equally applicable to life.

Despite the challenges I may face at any given time, my day typically starts and ends by reflecting on my blessings. I am grateful for a wonderful family, friends, good health, and a career that I love, serving alongside our nation’s best.

Since maintaining a positive mindset can be easier said than done during tough times, it is imperative that we lean on others to help reframe our perspective. For me, this meant accepting help from loved ones and mentors whom I have come to know as family.

This might even require some tough love, which Shannon has provided, to keep me from the darkest of places. She, along with my mentor, Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Robert Miller, are the two most influential people in my life.

Their love, presence, and encouragement not only rescued me from the deepest valley, it has also reignited the inner joy and purpose that was temporarily lost.

Redirecting Focus

Acclimating to our new normal has involved an intense focus on pursuits that provide tranquility, reflection, and momentary distractions. Hiking and photography have been my primary coping mechanisms and the opportunities are endless here in Alaska. While I have enjoyed these activities with loved ones and teammates, the most peaceful and powerful experiences have been solo.

Supplementing these outdoor activities has been a continued commitment to physical fitness and overall health. Once again, having accountability partners to ensure that I am eating right, getting adequate sleep, and relieving stress has been vital to my recovery. Other interests have included reading, playing the guitar, and spending time with Winston, our miniature schnauzer and newest addition to the family. Collectively, these outlets have allowed me to re-channel my thinking and embrace the inevitable emotions in a positive way.

Seeking Professional Help

Soliciting assistance can be the most daunting hurdle to overcome in any resilience journey. In our profession of arms, stigma associated with seeking professional help still exists and we each play a crucial role in removing them.

My faith has always been at the forefront of my life, and under current conditions, I have leaned into it like never before. Our chaplain has been a rock for our family and continues to offer support and prayer on a regular basis. Furthermore, I am also receiving mental health support, and the team’s expertise has helped me understand and navigate the grieving process. The junior Airman who conducted my initial intake was extremely professional, compassionate, and a fantastic representative of our Air Force Medical Service. As a new member of our Air Force, she exemplifies how we as medics can make life-changing impacts regardless of rank, title, or position.

Final Thoughts

On the other side of grief is where growth and gratitude enter the picture. Life and experience have taught me there is beauty in the midst of every storm. In my resilience journey, that beauty is manifested in the bonds this adversity has created among our family, friends, and Air Force teammates.

I have seen the heart of my squadron, medical group colleagues, and countless others. They have shown us the best of humanity and reinforced why our Air Force is not only the greatest in the world, but why the people comprising it are so unique and special. As a leader, people often inquire about “why I serve” and the answer is unquestionably our Air Force family.

I share my story in hopes that it will benefit someone who needs to hear it. If you do not remember anything else, know that you are not alone, you are supported, and it is OK not to be OK. Life will knock us all down at some point, but what matters is that we know how to get back up. Resilience, the ability to conquer adversity and thrive again, exists within each of us.