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Nilaja Montgomery

Nilaja Montgomery will tell you: We still don’t know how to talk about suicide. 

“We’ve played coy, we’ve swept it under the rug, we’ve been respectful — we’ve done all the things but hit it head on,” she says. “We don’t talk about it and guess what: Suicide rates are higher than they’ve ever been.” 

Montgomery is done with all that. After years of navigating trauma and suicide in the military and in her own family, she’s become a compelling advocate for raising awareness around PTSD and mental health among veterans. She’s written her first book, “Breathing Under Water,” about her experiences in combat, with trauma, and as the spouse of a special operations soldier, shining a light on the struggles soldiers face both on active duty and in adjusting to life after military service.  

A New Orleans native, Montgomery grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and in Gary, Indiana. She met her husband Logan, an Army Ranger at the time, shortly after she graduated from Indiana University. They were married less than three months later. Montgomery’s own path into the Army wasn’t typical. She’d left her job to move to Fort Benning with Logan, and then couldn’t find another. “I was 26, the recession was happening, and the student loans were on my back,” she recalls. “They were calling me every day. [Logan] made a passing comment: ‘Well, if you joined the military, since you already have your degree, they’ll pay off your student loans.’ ... So literally I went the next day to the recruiting station.”

She finished the Basic Officer Leader Course in Texas “and three weeks later I was in Iraq,” she says. She deployed twice. “The second one, at least I didn’t have to see blood and guts and body parts — all that was the first one,” she says. “The first one was horrible.” One bright spot in that deployment was the friendship she built with her platoon sergeant, Lonideirdre Angulo. But the work itself was harrowing: Montgomery was in charge of casualty collection points. “Our job as medical evacuation was to go and pick up either the person — if they’re alive or dead — and their body parts, and make sure they get back,” she explains. “I literally kissed the ground when I got back from that first deployment, I was so desperate to get back here.”

One month after they got home, Lonideirdre Angulo was dead by suicide.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” Montgomery says. “I thought that she would come and talk to me. But it never happens that way. … For me it was like, ‘We made it through getting bombed, we made it through getting shot at — and then you decide to take your life?’ … It was dark. I started drinking really heavily. I rethought life in every form.” 

She left the unit, but “it didn’t stop there,” she says, “because once we got the 2nd Ranger Battalion, there were at least two more [suicides] that I know of.”

Montgomery wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until two years ago, she says, “because for so many years I was in denial. I was like, ‘I was trained to save lives. I didn’t get anything blown up, I have all my limbs.’ Life, limb eyesight — I’m good. That’s what the military tells you: If it’s not life, limb or eyesight, you are fine. So I was ‘fine.’”

She wasn’t fine, and neither was Logan. In 2019, with a distinguished 14-year career in the Army and after multiple combat deployments, he attempted suicide. “He doesn’t remember any of it,” Montgomery says. “The bullet was less than a millimeter from his brain. That’s less than a penny, a dime. He should not be here, under any circumstances.”

Of the aftermath, she says, “We’re still in it. We’re going to be in it. We’re going to be in it for the rest of our lives.” She and Logan and their 7-year-old son are committed to healing through therapy, and Montgomery is passionate about changing the way mental health is addressed in servicemembers — and critical of the ways the military fails its veterans. “You’re trained for decades to not feel anything — react, shoot, move, communicate — do what you need to do for the mission, feel later,” she said. “Then they wave and say, ‘OK, go into the world and be normal humans! Good luck!’” 

She’s also passionate about civil rights and inclusion. 

“Nilaja stands for diversity and education in every place she is in,” said nominator Miranda Hernandez. “She quickly jumped into these efforts in her workplace to create opportunities for other minority groups.” 

Montgomery is an account manager with Oracle Advertising & Customer Experience, and serves as lead for the Oracle Alliance of Black Leaders for Excellence. She also serves as Culture & Diversity Program leader at Latisha Hardy Dance and The Dancing Prism Project; legislation lead for the Denver Chapter of Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority Incorporated; and speaks on developing cultural awareness and inclusion in organizations for the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Association for Talent Development.

And she’s not done writing.

“With my psychologist, I’m working on my childhood trauma, my generational trauma — which is going to be what my next book is about,” Montgomery says, “because as a Black woman in America, I’m not OK. I don’t think any Black woman is OK. And if she is OK, she’s probably in denial.” 

Managing Editor

Helen Robinson is a graduate of The University of Queensland, Australia. She worked in print media in Australia, Canada and the U.S. before joining the Business Journal in 2016. She became managing editor in 2019.