HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Paths through life can be treacherous. Winding, slippery and uncertain, obstacles along the way can derail a journey completely and stop it in its tracks.
Tech. Sgt. Corey Nowell, noncommissioned officer in charge of movement support at the Joint Personal Property Shipping Office Northeast, has forged his own roadmap from his failures and achievements.
His paternal grandmother, Gladys, raised him in Miami. Both of his parents suffered from addiction to crack cocaine, and navigating the inner-city streets was a challenge for the young boy.
“There were gangs and the whole drug scene,” said Nowell. “I never got involved with any of that because I never wanted to disappoint my grandmother.”
Nowell’s childhood included extracurricular activities like sports and orchestra, and he was a stellar student. Just before he graduated high school, his armed services aptitude test scores caught the eye of his local recruiter.
With his grandmother’s support, he joined the Air Force at 18 years old as a security forces defender and received his first assignment to Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. It was there he received his first major blow.
“I was completely culture shocked when I got there,” he said. “There were no skyscrapers, no beaches, and definitely not the diversity that I was so used to in the city.”
One night, while Nowell was a designated driver for his friends, another Airman yelled racial slurs at him from across the parking lot, and a fight broke out.
“I wanted to make sure he would never use that word again,” he said.
As the investigation unfolded, Nowell’s verdict was in: He received an Article 15 and lost two strips; demoting him from E-4, senior airman to E-2, airman.
He was feeling defeated and tired, and was ready to hang up his uniform, until something clicked, and lit his spark again.
“I decided then that I would conquer anything that came my way,” he said. “If you needed a floor mopped, I would be the best mopper you’d ever seen. Being able to bounce back is what made me, me.”
Nowell tackled his extra duties, took on extra classes and continued to excel in his career development courses. In just a few weeks, his commander promoted him back to E-3, airman first class.
“He told me, ‘People like you help other people make it,’” said Nowell.
Nowell had triumphed through his first major setback as an adult. With his new sense of self and accountability, he felt ready to take on whatever obstacles would come his way.
Nevertheless, just as he got over one challenge, another would follow.
A collision with a drunk driver left him with a level-2 concussion and chronic migraines, forcing him out of security forces.
The final blow came in 2011, when his grandmother, Gladys, passed away.
“I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to and I just couldn’t handle it,” he said. “All I could think was that if she was in heaven, then I wanted to be there too.”
With everything up to that point, he had had enough.
On an afternoon while his then second wife was at work, he went to his closet and opened the safe where he kept two firearms.
“I decided that I couldn’t do life anymore,” he said. “I went out to the balcony and put it to my head, and I pulled the trigger.”
“Nothing happened,” he said. “I reloaded it and shot it into the air and boom, it went off, so I reloaded and put it back to my head.”
“It jammed again.”
Nowell said the next thing he remembers is his wife coming home, finding him in tears on the living room floor, and frantically dialing friends and coworkers to help.
At his lowest moment, he knew his friends and family would be devastated if he had succeeded, but the despair was too much to handle. He began his recovery in impatient care and said he began to see things clearly again.
“If you really feel like there’s no other way out, you have to reach out to someone,” he said. “Give someone the opportunity to help you; don’t make that decision for them.”
Today, Nowell is living what he calls his “second chance.”
He found purpose in volunteerism, working with at-risk youth in the Greater Boston communities. He is the first member in his family’s generation to earn a college degree and is currently working toward his master’s.
At Hanscom, he supervisors more than 10 Airmen and civilians and works each day to make sure they understand that any setback can be overcome.
“It’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s important to hold yourself accountable,” he said. “But you can’t hang it over your head forever and feel like you can’t recover. Everything is recoverable.”
Nowell said the military instills the idea that perception is reality, but works to look at his wingmen and their struggles objectively.
“If you have to punish someone, there’s no reason to continue to beat him or her down,” he said. “Don’t judge them, pull them in closer and find out what’s going on.”
“Our goal should always be to help each other reach our fullest potential.”