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From suffering to success: A story about a first sergeant’s recovery from tragedy

A man holds a painting of his daughter.

Master Sgt. Paul Montgomery, 375th Civil Engineer Squadron first sergeant, holds a portrait of his daughter at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., March 4, 2020. Montgomery’s daughter died when she was two-years-old, and Montgomery found healing through support from the Air Force and his coworkers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

A family poses for a photo.

Master Sgt. Paul Montgomery, 375th Civil Engineer Squadron first sergeant, poses for a photo with his children at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., March 4, 2020. Montgomery became a first sergeant to help Airmen through their struggles just as he had been helped as a young Airman. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

A small girl eats chocolate cake and smiles.

Britny, daughter of Master Sgt. Paul Montgomery, 375th Civil Engineer Squadron first sergeant, smiles after eating a cake in 2005. Montgomery was a senior airman when he and his daughter moved in with his first sergeant following a divorce. (Courtesy photo)

A family gathers for a selfie

Master Sgt. Paul Montgomery, 375th Civil Engineer Squadron first sergeant, his wife, Amanda, son, Hunter, daughter, Addysyn and new-born, Hazel, gather for a selfie. Montgomery met Amanda a couple years after his daughter, Britny, died. She was working in public health and he was a medic at the same hospital. (Courtesy photo)

A father plays with his daughter.

Britny, daughter of Master Sgt. Paul Montgomery, 375th Civil Engineer Squadron first sergeant, plays with her dad in 2005. Montgomery was granted primary custody of his daughter when he got a divorce. (Courtesy photo)

Two men talk across a desk.

Master Sgt. Paul Montgomery, 375th Civil Engineer Squadron first sergeant, listens to one of his Airman at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., Jan. 9, 2020. As a first sergeant, Montgomery is responsible for the welfare of all enlisted members in his squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill -- It was the first time he was away from his two-year-old daughter. He was nervous about leaving her with her mother for a week, but soon enough she would be back in his arms.

Then, his phone rang. The name of his ex-mother-in-law lit the screen.

“She told me they were in the emergency room and that my daughter, Britny, had died,” said Master Sgt. Paul Montgomery, 375th Civil Engineer Squadron first sergeant.

He said that call 15 years ago took him to the lowest point in his life. He didn’t understand how his healthy baby girl could have died.

“I think you always feel guilty in a situation like that, especially when it’s your kid, because as parents it’s our job to protect them, and I wasn’t able to do that,” said Montgomery hesitantly.

He had tried to protect her. Long before her death, he tried.

He filed for divorce when he noticed her mother was getting addicted to narcotics and stealing from work.

“The judge came out and said I got my daughter, and my ex-wife got the house,” said Montgomery. “So, here I was paying for a house payment with no money and a child, and we were pretty much on the street. My first sergeant took me in, and I lived with him for about three months. Essentially, he saved my life.”

However, Montgomery’s ex-wife was allotted eight separate weeks of supervised visitation a year. It was during the first required visitation that he drove to Memphis, Tennessee, to drop her off … only to receive the tragic call days later.  

He spent several months after the call contacting anyone he could think of to give him some clarity, who could tell him what happened.

Then it was already Christmas Day, a day Britny would have torn through presents, smiling, enjoying every bit of childhood innocence she deserved, when Montgomery got another call.

“The lab reports came back that my daughter was drugged.”

Britny’s mother was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison after pleading no contest and crying uncontrollably to keep from telling the judge what had happened, as Montgomery recounted. She was released six months early.

“Everyone says they want justice … yeah to a point, but it’s not really true,” said Montgomery. “I don’t want justice. I want my daughter back.”

That thought used to always be in the forefront of his mind. He used to drive to work and sit in the parking lot for 30 minutes, crying to himself before drying his face and going in.

“I remember being on my motorcycle going as fast as I could thinking, ‘If I wreck, I wreck.”

The pain was all consuming. He would do almost anything to escape it.

“I definitely had some dark times,” he said, pausing before continuing. “Definitely thought about suicide a couple of times, sticking a loaded gun in my mouth and thinking about it, but that wasn’t the answer, and it’s not the answer.”

He said fear and faith were what kept him alive in that moment.

“I held on to that Catholic upbringing that I had of suicide is a sin and I would go to hell when I really just wanted to go to heaven with my daughter.”

He also thought about how taking his own life would just transfer his pain to the people who cared for him most, people who wanted nothing more than to see him heal.

Their support got him there.

Montgomery said 100 members from his squadron drove over three hours on a Thursday afternoon to be there for him at his daughter’s funeral. His friends took turns hosting poker nights every weekend so he knew he wasn’t alone.

Professionals from family advocacy, mental health, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program and chaplain services ensured he received the care he needed without causing a negative impact on his career.

Montgomery said that is when he learned healthy ways to cope with his emotions. It allowed him to start focusing on his future again.

He went through more schooling to become a paramedic. After training he was put on flying status and was assigned to fly search and rescue missions for four years with the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school.

Later, he met the love of his life, Amanda. She gave him a sense of stability. She was supportive and encouraged him to go after his dreams, like becoming a first sergeant.

Montgomery applied several times and was accepted on his last try. He was extremely excited because ever since his first sergeant took him in all those years ago, he knew he wanted to be able to help his Airmen through their adversities and make a positive impact on their lives as well.

However, Amanda had plans for her future too. She wanted to be a mother, and the thought of being a father again terrified Montgomery.

“I didn’t want kids anymore because I was too scared or didn’t want to relive it,” he said. “If I wouldn’t have met someone as strong as her pushing towards a normal life, I wouldn’t have gone that route. She helped me move forward, like I have to keep living my life, not forget, but move forward and not be scared of the past.”

Then, on a day like any other, Montgomery’s phone rang. Amanda’s name lit the screen.

She couldn’t hold it in any longer. ‘I’m pregnant’ burst through the phone.

Montgomery’s nerves skyrocketed but his excitement was evident. It was the best call of his life.

“If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have the three beautiful kids I have. She definitely saved me.”