Turning pain into helping others: Bereaved mom finds solace and renewal

Editor’s note: This article deals with suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call  988, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. 

“I’ve always liked cooking, and this is just taking it to another level,” said Natacha Fortenberry about her Meridian Community College Culinary Arts Program studies. 

The 54-year-old Suqualena resident will graduate in December with an associate of applied science degree, gaining a whole new skill set she didn’t get when she received her bachelor’s degree in mass communications earlier. 

But she’s gained more than just learning how to prepare international dishes or how to prepare a menu. 

“I’m not lying when I say that coming back to school to MCC probably saved my life because it made me get out of the house and gave me something to do. I get to interact with younger people, and I love it, and I’m learning a lot,” she said. 

She added, “I love being with my younger classmates. And that’s helped me more with depression than anything else.” 

Fortenberry’s life turned upside down on July 17, 2021, when her son, Stanley Compton Powell III, Trey as he was known, took his own life shortly after returning from a deployment mission in Arkansas. Powell was a first-class Army sergeant who served in various positions across Mississippi, with his last being as the Awards Non-Commission Officer in Charge for the Joint Forces Headquarters in Jackson. 

There were no signs Fortenberry said that would give her or other family members an indication of his plans to kill himself. “From what I have discovered, that is how it is for many military people. They are so strong, but they fight their own demons. And you don’t know they’re fighting them because they’re used to putting on that strong, solid front, so you don’t have a clue.” 

According to the Veterans Affairs Department, some 20-plus veterans and service members die by suicide each day. To raise awareness, the College’s Veterans Committee wanted to take a stand against the silent battles these service personnel endure, so they hosted HonorStride: Steps for Veterans Lives. 

For the awareness walk, participants gathered on campus between the Quave Student Life Center and the Damon Fitness Center and followed a green-painted path that encircles the campus. 

Fortenberry spoke during the occasion, sharing information about her son. 

Powell graduated from West Lauderdale High School with honors and enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2012. Not wanting to attend college, Powell chose the military route, and he enjoyed the discipline and structure it offered. Throughout his career, Powell was a military police officer, an Avenger System maintenance supervisor, and other positions; he received meritorious service medals, three Army commendation medals, and Global War on Terrorism Service medals. 

Fortenberry also noted that, in 2017, he was the Mississippi Solider of the Year. “He competed with those in the military in Mississippi and then went on to the regional area,” she said, adding that he placed in the Top Five in the national competition. 

“He achieved a lot in nine years,” Fortenberry said of her son’s service to the country. 

Powell, a husband and father, also served his community, helping when others needed it. “When a storm would come through, and trees were down, he was the first one out there with a chainsaw to help get the trees out,” his mom said, noting he was also a Master Mason for the Suqualena Masonic Lodge. 

Fortenberry and her son were close. “He would tell me everything. I would have his back,” she said. He would make sure his mom knew he was okay when there were accidents involving the military in the area he was in. 

“But I never saw any sign that he was so depressed.” 

She continued, “I think that is something with the military. They’re used to hiding all that trauma; they don’t seek the help they need.” Fortenberry said many don’t reach out for help because they don’t want that noted on their service record. 

Fortenberry has found a shirt she proudly wears with the words “Gold Star Mom: We Love and Remember.” She misses the little stories Powell would tell her, some of the funny things that would happen with him and his friends. “For a long time, I couldn’t laugh about them,” she said when those memories surfaced. 

Still, Fortenberry is determined to make a difference, hoping to bring awareness to the situation of military veterans. “If this can prevent one veteran suicide, I consider it worth it.” 

She added, “My heart is with them – those at the walk,” she said, noting she doesn’t consider being a spokesman an honor. “But I do want to get the message out there. I want to give back.” 

Visit meridiancc.edu/vets for more information.