JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
An Iraq War veteran who endured a brutal childhood, testified against his mother during her murder trial and tried to end his own life brought his story of resilience and forgiveness to an audience of military members and civilians at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph this week.
Andrew O’Brien, who helps people overcome trauma by sharing his message of recreating a positive life out of negative experiences all over the world, talked about the four major hurdles in his life and offered advice on how to face life’s challenges as a featured event of Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month at JBSA-Randolph’s Religious Activity Center Sept. 10.
“I was delighted that Mr. O’Brien was available to come to Randolph given his busy speaking schedule,” said Gina Ramirez, JBSA-Randolph Mental Health Outreach coordinator. “We know that despite all of our resources, efforts and trainings, suicides continue to persist in our military community. Even one suicide is one too many. Every avenue that we can use to get the message of community, awareness and healing across is a must.”
O’Brien opened his presentation with a video that provided a “snapshot” of what he calls “This Crazy Journey” – the four major hurdles of prostitution, war, suicide and murder he experienced by the age of 23.
During his remarks to the audience, O’Brien detailed those four hurdles that eventually led him to a better place.
Raised by a prostitute mother, O’Brien described the unspeakable things he witnessed as a child.
“I watched adultery; I watched people paying to have sex with my mom ever since the age of 6,” he said. “I watched a lot of things throughout my childhood and it was a really, really rough upbringing.”
O’Brien also saw how his mother manipulated and used men.
After an addiction to methamphetamines during his teenage years and a period of homelessness, O’Brien enlisted in the Army, where he found – and lost – a sense of purpose.
O’Brien called his deployment to Iraq from 2008-2009 the happiest time of his life. After an unsuccessful turn as a truck driver, which he attributed to his lack of driving experience, O’Brien finally felt purpose and meaning as a lead gunner.
The experience had a profound impact on him.
“Iraq for me was a positive experience because it showed me what I am capable of, that I can be more than what I thought I could be,” he said.
But O’Brien’s return to the U.S. as a garrison soldier proved to be a difficult transition.
“It was hard because I finally felt purpose and it was like the purpose was ripped away from me so fast,” he said.
A year later, at the age of 22, O’Brien tried to kill himself.
“My decision was an impulsive one,” he said. “I didn’t plan it out, I didn’t have a strategy. I went home that day and I decided I don’t want to live anymore.”
O’Brien downed 120 pills in less than two minutes, but he survived. When his leadership was notified that he was in the intensive care unit, they were confused because they did not know he was having any problems.
“I was a happy soldier; I came to work every day with a smile on my face,” O’Brien said. “There was no way they could have known because I hid it so well.”
Blaming the Army and his leadership for a long time, O’Brien said he did not realize until later that all of his issues came from his childhood.
“I tried to kill myself because I watched my mom use and abuse men to get them to fall in love with her, give her what she wanted and then she would destroy them,” he said. “I never got hugs or kisses or love or affection. I didn’t get what a mom is supposed to give to her son, what my wife gives to my children. I didn’t receive any of that my entire life.”
O’Brien said he tried to kill himself because he was in pain, not because he wanted attention.
“People who want to kill themselves don’t do it for attention,” he said.
Less than a year later, in October 2011, O’Brien’s mother, Michele Williams, murdered her husband while he was sleeping. O’Brien recounted in the video that she asked him to help frame her husband’s ex-wife for the murder and that he considered helping her because all his life he wanted to earn his mother’s love. However, he testified against her in a case that captured national media attention.
After the trial, issues from his childhood started coming up, O’Brien said.
“I started emotionally abusing my wife – bad,” he said. “I’m not talking about saying a couple of mean things. I said some of the worst things that any man could ever say to any woman.”
O’Brien later apologized to his wife and told her he was sorry for all the pain he had caused her.
“It’s not something I’m proud of,” he said. “I treated her horribly and I’m lucky that she is still with me to this day and I have a beautiful family.”
In April of this year, O’Brien faced more adversity when he and his wife lost their unborn son at 14 weeks.
“That was the hardest experience that I’ve gone through out of everything,” he said. “Testifying in court in front of all these media to put my mom in prison for the rest of her life was nothing compared to losing my son.”
The loss of his son changed O’Brien’s perspective on his life, prompting him to stop working long hours and spend more time with his family.
“I can either let my son die and have it mean absolutely nothing and give his life zero purpose, or I can realize that I can turn this into a moment of learning for me, a moment to create change, “he said. “The loss of one son built a stronger relationship with me and my three kids because I allowed it to teach me something, instead of allowing it to destroy me.”
Just a few months after his unborn son’s death, O’Brien resolved the issue that brought him so much pain and filled him with so much anger when he embarked on an 80-mile journey by foot from Austin to the Gatesville Women’s Prison to see his mother and say the words “I forgive you.”
“Those are the three most powerful words I can say in my life,” he said.
The challenges in his life have steeled him, O’Brien said.
“Life cannot throw anything to me at this time in my life,” he said. “I have faced some of the most extreme situations that most people wouldn’t believe. There’s nothing that can be thrown at me. It’s just not possible. I am prepared now; nothing can destroy me.”
O’Brien, whose “Rising Phoenix” video series helps tell his story, offered advice on coping with life’s challenges, comparing people’s lives to the four seasons.
Just as a tree must cycle through the seasons to achieve health and growth, people must face the metaphorical seasons in their lives – the pain of autumn, the consequences of that pain in winter, the rebirth experienced in spring and the sunlight and warmth of summer – sometimes multiple times during the year.
“In your life, every year without a doubt you will face four cycles,” O’Brien said. “There is only one person you can make happy in your life, and that’s you. And we will only have happiness when we learn to accept the pain that comes with life and appreciate life.
“The last thing is to be grateful every moment that you can that you have in this world, because I almost lost that moment,” he said. “If we focus on the problems of the day, if we don’t see the future tomorrow, that’s what leads to depression.”
In his presentation, O’Brien was able to give a voice to those painful moments all people experience, Ramirez said.
“He offered his story as a way for us to recognize the hurts in our lives while offering a framework for working through the obstacles that we all inevitably face,” she said.