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Peterson Airman’s tragic loss exemplifies resiliency

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Rose Gudex
  • 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

After getting orders to South Korea, Tech. Sgt. Billy Gazzaway was missing his family, as anyone would. Far away from them, he received the horrible news that his 4-year-old son, who had already been diagnosed, treated and was in remission for leukemia, had relapsed.By the time Gazzaway made it back to his family almost two weeks later, his son, Kadin, had already lost his hair due to the aggressive treatment. He battled hard for around eight months, but passed away just before his fifth birthday.

Gazzaway struggled with the loss of his son throughout the next several years and through multiple assignments. He said he turned to alcohol and bottled his emotions inside. The long road to recovery began when he was able to admit he needed help and sought counseling. By addressing the hardships head on, Gazzaway was able to get back on track to finding success and happiness.

He began the journey to recovery at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, when he was depressed and said he didn't have motivation to do anything after Kadin passed away. He kept thinking about the look on his son's face in his last moments.

"The whole time, the look on his face was that he's disappointing us," he said. "For those last minutes, last few seconds, I've never had anyone squeeze my hand so hard. ... It still haunts me today."

Lost and angry, Gazzaway even stopped talking to the one person who knew what he was going through -- his wife, Master Sgt. Emily Gazzaway, now a senior enlisted aide at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

His wife immediately went to counseling, but he refused, thinking he didn't need anyone telling him how to grieve the loss of his son, he said. Emily eventually convinced him to go to at least one counseling session with her, but still Billy couldn't talk about it and just lied.

"Oh no, I'm doing great," he recalled telling the counselor. "No, I'm not drinking that heavily."

Two months later, Billy finally went back to work but it wasn't a stellar performance, he said, adding that he just showed up for work and went through the motions. There was no volunteering or self-improvement, just his work in the communication squadron.

To make matters worse, the Gazzaways received orders for Beale AFB, California, after they were told they would never have to leave the place where Kadin was buried. Billy's drinking continued to get worse because he couldn't be there for his son.

"On May 4, 2009, is when I said I'm tired of feeling sorry for myself," he said. "I (was) tired of living this way and not doing what the Air Force (was) asking me to do."

Not long after, he heard on the radio about Team in Training, a fundraising program for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. With this organization, he had something to focus on and ran his first marathon in Sacramento in 2009.

Seemingly on the right path, Billy started to do what the Air Force wanted him to do and worked on bettering himself, he said. He won a couple quarterly awards and was up for an annual award. And then there was a setback.

"This one was self-inflicted. I got a DUI January of 2010," he said of his driving under the influence charge. "I didn't know (what to do). I definitely didn't want to be on earth anymore. I cannot believe I did this."

This all happened five days before he was supposed to be awarded the wing-level volunteer NCO of the year award. It was decided Billy's recent mistake wasn't a good example to other Airmen and the award was taken away.

As a result, he received a poor enlisted performance report and was not awarded a decoration when he left Beale for Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio. At first, he said, it was very discouraging but then a new place allowed him a fresh start.

The first thing Billy did was seek help when he arrived at his new base. He went to counseling and talked to his leadership about what happened and what he was going through.

The same thing happened when they received another new assignment, this time to Peterson AFB. Billy again discussed his past struggles with his leadership right away and also volunteered to be a mentor for other Airmen going through tough times, he said.

Things were on the upswing and he began to address his problems rather than brush them under the rug. A key point he passed on to his troops was to stop making excuses, as he had.

"I didn't tell Kadin's story," Billy said. "I didn't want people to think 'this guy got a DUI because his son died.' No, I got a DUI because I made a stupid mistake."

It may have taken a while for him to get back on the right track, but he took ownership of his mistakes and now takes pride in helping others whenever he can. After the rollercoaster of experiences life threw at him, he encourages Airmen to seek help if there is ever a situation that calls for it.

"If you ever think you've hit rock bottom ... know that you can do it, seek help," he said. "It was that moment when I started talking to people when my life and my career started changing for the better."

As long as people are willing to seek it, there will always be guidance and support during times when life gets tough and seem dark, he said.