By SCOTT T. STURKOL
Fort McCoy Public Affairs Office
‘I didn’t care if I lived or died’ — Retired Command Sgt. Maj., Operation Iraqi Freedom vet, shares story of personal survival
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas E. Campbell has had a lengthy Army career — 32 years — and since he retired from active service in November 2022 he hasn’t stopped finding a way to serve.
Now he’s trying to share his story of survival from the brink of suicide in hopes to encourage others to know it’s okay to seek help and be helped. That suicide isn’t the answer and that seeking help, facing your demons, and taking life one step at a time can help you survive.
Campbell’s biography is a long list of demonstrating what it means to be a Soldier who leads from the front. A native of Center, Texas, he joined in 1989 and never looked back.
Through his career, Campbell has held positions of responsibility and leadership at many levels. He’s been a driver/training noncommissioned officer (NCO), a machine gunner, rifleman, sniper, team leader, squad leader, drill sergeant, platoon and operations sergeant, first sergeant, sergeant major, training sergeant major, and command sergeant major.
Campbell has served and led at the squad, company, battalion, regiment, and command level at both stateside and overseas locations. And Campbell’s awards and decorations are numerous. According to his biography they include the three Bronze Star awards, six Meritorious Service Medals; the Army Commendation Medal for Valor; five Army Commendation Medals; six Army Achievement Medals, three awards of the Valorous Unit Award, the Department of State Meritorious Honor Award, eight Army Good Conduct Medals; the National Defense Medal with Bronze Star, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; the NCO Development Ribbon (with numeral 5), the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon (with Numeral 4), the NATO Medal; the Multi-National Force and Observer Medal, the DrillSergeant Badge, the Combat Infantry Badge, the Expert Infantry Badge; the Pathfinder Badge, the Senior Parachutist Badge, the Parachutist Badge, the Air Assault Badge, and the Driver Badge. He was also inducted into the Orders of St. Maurice and St. George, and he was inducted into the Drill Sergeant Hall of Fame.
If someone outside the Army were looking at his experience and his biography, they might think he has done it all and would never have any problems. But as he explained March 3 to the Fort McCoy workforce in several special sessions, his trauma from personal loss and injury took its toll on his life during his Army career almost to the point that it could have cost him his career … and his life.
Sharing his story
Campbell spoke to Fort McCoy personnel on March 2, 3, and 4. His presentation about what he has experienced is probably not too unlike many he had addressed in his audience.
Since 2001, many service members like Campbell have experienced many deployments, high operations tempo, and there’s also the possibility they’ve lost someone important in their life along the way — also like Campbell.
Campbell talked about being a sniper in Operation Iraqi Freedom and losing his spotter and friend, Sgt. Ryan Baum. Baum died in combat action in Iraq on May 18, 2007.
“He was killed on a patrol he wasn’t supposed to be on,” Campbell said. “He talked me into letting him go on the patrol. … He was supposed to go on leave that night. And the reason he was supposed to go on leave was because his first child was going to be born.”
Campbell talked about survivor guilt and how it haunted him. He also talked about coming home from a deployment and not being greeted with a loving embrace.
“Soldiers and their wives and their kids are coming out to hugs and kisses and all that good stuff,” Campbell said. “And I’m looking around trying to find my wife and kids and there’s nobody there. I found my duffel bags. I find somebody to give me a ride home. I get to the house, and I find out that I’m getting a divorce, and I’ve got two weeks to be in Texas.”
Campbell was going to Texas for training. He went to Fort Bliss for the Sergeant Major Academy. He brought a camper, got set up, and commenced to spiraling downward with undiagnosed depression and head trauma he had suffered on the deployment he had just returned from, he said.
“Nobody’s in charge of me,” Campbell said. “I’m having a strange relationship with my kids. … I (also) have prided myself — I had a perfect credit score. I prided myself in that I had never paid a late bill in my life. Now my credit score was 300. I couldn’t finance a pencil if I wanted to.
“The dream house that I bought Alaska that I planned on retiring in and dying in — I had to give away and take it in the nose,” Campbell said. “And I was having these freaking headaches when I would be sitting watching TV. I (would) get this freaking headache that hurt so bad. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move my eyeballs, and I started self medicating. I thought Jim Beam was a pretty good doctor. He sucks.
“I would find out that nothing good comes out of a bottle,” Campbell said. “So I’m self medicating on top of everything else. And, those saying that an idle mind is the devil’s playground. My God, it is. And then I start thinking about the decisions that I made. I started thinking about the survival guilt. I started thinking about my 20 year marriage that just went down the drink, and the relationship that I wish I had with my kids and the fact that I don’t have any. And then I started drinking more because I started thinking about that. I start getting depressed, and I thought Jim Beam was a pretty good psychologist.”
Campbell said it got so bad he would just drink himself to sleep.
“I’ve burned a lot of bridges during this time because I also turned very angry,” he said. “I hated everybody. If you meet anybody that graduated Class 61 from Sergeant Major Academy and asked if they know Tom Campbell, they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that idiot.’”
In reflection, Campbell said the situation was pretty dire.
“I was suicidal before I knew I was suicidal,” he said. “And here’s what I mean by that. “I didn’t think I was suicidal, but I didn’t care if I lived or died.”
Continuous reckless abandon
If you’ve ever been in El Paso, you know in the afternoons Interstate 10 turns into Parking Lot 10,” Campbell said. “And I went through cars at 100-plus miles an hour on my motorcycle.
“So I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he said. “I like rock climbing. I’d go to the Waco tanks, and I would climb just to get away from the world. And I would climb 100 plus feet up in the air with no anchor, no rope. I didn’t care if I fell. I didn’t care if I died or not. I didn’t care about my health and safety, and nor did I care about yours.
“I would hear stories of me riding wheelies out of the trailer park at three o’clock in the morning,” he said, “and I never had any recollection that I even cranked up the motorcycle that night. I just turned into a very bitter, bitter person.”
The plan to end it all
“I thought I was doing a selfless act by taking myself out of the equation,” Campbell said. “My kids are gonna be better off. My kids will be taken care of. Everybody around me will be better off if I remove myself out of the equation. Now, I don’t want to just put a pistol in my mouth for the trigger for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to be a statistic, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my kids getting a benefit. So I came up with the idea that I would stage an accident — that way it would just be a motorcycle (accident).
Campbell found a place in the mountains he thought would be the perfect place to have his “accident.”
“So I recon El Paso County to try to find the perfect place to have an accident between East and West El Paso,” Campbell said. “Transplant Road goes up in the mountains back down the mountains and a connection to come down on the east side. Over on the left side, coming down the mountain makes a really sharp curve on the left and right there in that bend there are some picnic tables with some rock balls on the table with the sun shade over them. When you’re coming down, you’re looking right up on those walls. If you don’t turn, you’re gonna get that, so that was the place that I was gonna have my accident.”
So then he said he had to get his affairs in order to make sure his children got his benefits. He got his will together, and he got everything ready.
“I rehearsed the plan a tremendous amount of times,” Campbell said. “I drove up to the top, and I would race that motorcycle down that mountain. I would slow down right before I hit that curve. I rehearsed that so many times, I can’t even count — probably about three or four times a day.”
The day arrives, an angel comes calling
The day came where Campbell said he was going to end his life with the “accident” he’d been rehearsing day after day after day on a mountain road outside El Paso, Texas. He didn’t think he had anything else to live for. But some where, for some reason, someone else thought differently.
As Campbell made his fateful ride down the mountain road toward that curve, he noted, “somebody parked their car in front of that wall.”
And so because the car was there, as he came screaming down the hill he had to stop himself and change his plan.
“Somehow I got that motorcycle under control and went around that curve,” Campbell said. “I went back up the hill, pulled off the side of the road, and waited for that car to leave.”
And then his phone began to ring in his pocket, he said. He didn’t answer it, and he lets it go to voicemail. And then it rings again. And he lets it go again. He’s not going to change his plan. He’s done. He’s just waiting for that car to move, and then it’s 100 miles per hour to a rock wall.
“It rings again,” he said. And again … until he finally answers it.
“And the voice on the other end was a little girl that I met at the VFW,” Campbell said. “I met her through her dad who was a retired first sergeant in Vietnam. He was pissed off and hated everybody. We had something. We hated everybody together. And she, but she, his daughter, Theresa, she kept talking to me. She could not believe that I was really as angry as a person as I made out to be. And she kept talking to me, and she had this weird feeling that she just needed to call to check on me.”
She saved him. She didn’t know it at the time, but she saved him, Campbell said. Now years later they are husband and wife.
As Campbell completed his talk with the workforce, he also shared some other stories about helping and looking out for co-workers, troops, and friends and family.
He also encouraged everyone to seek help when needed and not see it as a stigma. And if anything, his story is more enough to relay that importance.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifelineat 988 and press 1 for the Military Crisis Line. Also learn more about the Army Suicide Prevention Program by visiting https://www.armyresilience.army.mil/suicide-prevention/pages/about.html.
PHOTO CAPTIONS: Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas E. Campbell shares his story March 3, 2023, at Fort McCoy, Wis., during a presentation at building 60 at the installation. Campbell served as a featured speaker for Fort McCoy’s suicide prevention awareness in early March 2023. (U.S. Army Photos by Scott T. Sturkol, Public Affairs Office, Fort McCoy, Wis.)