McConnell Couples: Togetherness through strength

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Victor J. Caputo
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Then-Senior Airman Nichol Graham was working her night shift at the Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, billeting when a rather young looking Airman walked into the lobby.

There were no stripes on the man's sleeves, so Nichol quickly stood up and popped to attention before she noticed that there was nothing on his collar, either. The airman basic who stood there awkwardly still hasn't forgotten the first words out of Nichol's mouth, even after almost 18 years.

"Awe, that's so cute!" she said.

Tech. Sgt. Terrance Williams, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Honor Guard NCO in charge, laughed as he recounted his first encounter with now Master Sgt. Nichol Williams, 22nd Force Support Squadron readiness NCO.

Terrance was a gate guard at Robins AFB, and he noticed that Nichol would enter the base through his gate more often than not, and that is where they began communicating.

"It went from just talking to exchanging numbers," he said. "She would 'magically' find me every day."

Nichol had recently gone through a divorce that left her custody of her son Dante. Terrance didn't see the young boy as an obstacle, he instead saw Dante as the third person in his relationship with Nichol.

"He was always there," said Terrance. "We would plan for the three of us, not just Nichol and I."

The two Airmen tied the knot in 2002, had two more children, Jazzy, 12, and Cruz, 6, and moved to McConnell AFB in 2005, the place they would call home for the next 10 years.

It wasn't long before they had to tackle one of the biggest issues that a military-to-military couple can face: deployments.

Together, the Williams have deployed a total of 11 times in the 13 years they have been married: Terrance six times and Nichol five.

One deployment was a shared experience, with both of them serving at the same base in Iraq at the same time. They were able to provide a higher level of emotional support to each other than is usually possible during a deployment, but the worries caused by the danger in the area doubled.

Nichol and Terrance were both out on a patrol when a mortar attack was launched against the base.

"It was horrible," said Nichol. "I remember crying because I was scared, but not for us. I was scared for the kids. They could have lost both of their parents."

Luckily, neither Airman received any injuries during the attack, but it left a lasting mental impression on them.

The high deployment rate slowly took a toll on the family, and it hit a breaking point in 2009.

Terrance had just returned from overseas when Nichol deployed only three weeks later. He went from worrying about self-preservation to the stresses of getting the kids to their extracurricular activities, signing them up for classes and taking care of all of the finances and housework.

He struggled with mental and emotional problems every day, and not being able to go to Nichol only made things worse. It wasn't long before one beer after work turned to three, then five.

"I had hit my absolute lowest point," said Terrance. "I made a decision and checked myself into mental health."

The Airmen at the 22nd Medical Operations Squadron mental health flight immediately began to help Terrance when he came to their office. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

"I was put on medication and started seeing a therapist," he said. "It was probably the best thing I've ever done."

Terrance's supervision fully supported his decision, and his actions helped eschew the myth that going to mental health is a career killer. Many Airmen in the 22nd Security Forces Squadron were inspired by Terrance and decided to seek help from mental health after speaking with him about it, he said.

"If I hadn't gotten help, it would have destroyed my family," said Terrance.

This scare wasn't the first time that Nichol and Terrance have had to seek help for the sake of their family. The couple is fully aware of how the highs and lows of their marriage could impact them.

"We could have been divorced multiple times," she said. "Instead, we went to couples communication several times because we needed the help."

The Williams have learned that open communication is vital when it comes to keeping a marriage and family together.

"We learned that neither of our positions is more important than the other's," said Nichol. "Both of us are very important to our family and friends, so we know to never try to take that away from each other, and that's part of what makes us so strong. If I was deployed, I was never in a bigger predicament than if he was with the kids."

Nichol is retiring from active duty in July 2015 after 21 years of service, and she and her husband are preparing for the new paths of communication that they will take.

"I have to let her know what I'm doing day-to-day now," said Terrance. "When she still wore the uniform, she would go to the same things I went to, do the same things I would do. Now I have to communicate that stuff more, which I know I'm not very good at, but I'll learn how to do it."

What started out as innocent flirting at the Robins AFB gate turned into a life-long journey for these Airmen. They used all of the resources available when times were tough, and only have one message they want people to know.

"There is help out there for everybody and everything," said Terrance as Nichol leaned her head on his shoulder. "You can't be afraid to ask for help."

(Editor's note: This story is part of a series of articles examining the life of "mil-to-mil" couples, or couples consisting of two military personnel.)