NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --
Nothing can prepare you for the reality of a knock on your door and hearing your wife has been in a terrible auto accident. Nothing can prepare you for being asked to identify her by her wedding ring as she lies in a coma in the intensive care unit. Nothing can prepare you for becoming a widower and a single dad at the age of 28.
For Nathan Parks, life turned upside down when all of these events happened to him in 2006. The Reserve Citizen Airman had heard the term “resiliency” in some of his military training classes but he was about to quickly learn that resiliency was his vital path to surviving tragedy.
Before that knock on his door, Parks, who is currently a chief master sergeant and serves as the superintendent for the 926th Wing’s 726th Operations Group at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, said his life was pretty normal.
He was an Air Force Reservist at the time and he had just finished a deployment. He and his wife had just adopted two special-needs children. He was advancing in his civilian career as a police officer and was running a private investigation business on the side.
After the knock, Parks said he found himself desperately trying to manage the new reality of his life.
“There were days I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed,” he said.
Just months after his wife died, Parks’ dad left his mom after 32 years of marriage. Then, in the spring of 2007, he blew out his knee for the second time.
The overwhelming stress and grief that came from these rapid events in Parks’ life took a dramatic toll on his health.
Thankfully, he went to counseling and quickly realized he had to take back control in his life so he could be there for his children.
“One of the things the counselor said to me was, ‘the best thing you can do for your kids is to be a healthy you,’” Parks said. “I knew the way I handled things would set the tone for their life on how they handled adversity and challenges.”
The Air Force didn’t adopt the Comprehensive Airman Fitness concept until 2009, but Parks said his journey to wellness began when he started focusing on his mental, physical, social and spiritual health back in 2007.
He got back in the gym and said he was able to find solitude and healing there.
“There was not a lot I could control in my life and I wasn’t winning a lot of battles,” he said. “Being able to win in the weight room started giving me confidence in what I could do and what I could withstand.”
Parks also said he had to acknowledge the anger and betrayal he felt in his spiritual life in order to move forward.
“I started keeping record of all the good things I felt like God had done in my life – all the blessings I probably didn’t deserve and it (the list) way outweighed this one page of why I was mad,” he said.
While he was progressing on his internal resiliency journey, Parks said having people just being present had a profound impact on his ability to rebuild a healthy life.
“Every other night some military member would show up at my house and bring a meal,” he said. “It was something simple like that.”
Looking back on those years, Parks said his greatest advice for people looking to help a person in need is just to be present.
“There are times where nothing can be said and our presence is where the value is added,” he said. “Just be present.”
In the years following his wife’s death, Parks was able to overcome his physical injury and learn how to be a single father of two special-needs children. He said he also quickly learned surviving a major life event didn’t preclude him from facing another tragedy nor did it preclude him from dealing with everyday life stressors.
“Life doesn’t keep score on tragedy and stress. It doesn’t care who you are, what job title you have, what you’ve been through in the past or what you’ll go through in the future,” he said. “Stress and life know no bias.”
Shortly after he was promoted to chief master sergeant, he received another knock on his door. This time it was a police officer telling him it was no longer safe for his oldest daughter to live in his family home because of her mental illness.
With that one knock, his life drastically changed again. He said he felt guilt and shame at being a leader trying to give advice while his life had been turned upside down and he had no way of fixing it.
“Sometimes as leaders we get put on a pedestal for having life figured out and on the surface it may seem that way,” he said. “But on the inside leaders are still dealing with their own issues.”
The guilt and shame changed for Parks when he found the courage to open up with coworkers who noticed a change in his behavior.
“It was those people who really let me know that no matter what I was going through, I wasn’t going through it alone,” he said.
He encourages supervisors, friends and family members to always be present in one another’s lives enough to notice when someone is not his or herself.
“The small pieces and the little steps matter,” he said. “We underestimate what 20 seconds can do. We underestimate what those little questions can do.”
Parks stressed his faith has been the foundation of his resiliency through major and minor life events, but he encourages everyone to ask themselves how they can make every day a success.
“It’s worth the time and effort to figure out what adds value to your life, to figure out now what makes every day successful,” he said.
The chief said the final piece of the grieving puzzle for him was realizing that sharing his story helped others through their own healing process.
“I hated telling my story,” he said. “I hated people feeling sorry for me and not knowing what to say.”
Despite his reluctance to share his story, the chief has learned that when he sees people grieving or needing resiliency, his story may help equip, empower or inspire them to be the hero in their own resiliency journey. #ReserveResilient
(Stanley is assigned to the 926th Wing’s public affairs office.)