On April 23, Dawn Williams does what no mother should ever have to do: visit the grave of her daughter.
A little over two years ago, Williams' 27-year-old daughter, Jessica Rawls, was murdered by her husband shortly before he committed suicide. But surprisingly, Williams said she's not mad at her former son in law. She believes he suffered from PTSD and never received treatment.
"You know on the TV the military comes and knocks on your door," said Williams, "Nobody ever came and knocked on my door."
Four days after Jessica Rawls' murder, Williams received a heartbreaking phone call informing her that her daughter was dead. Army investigators determined that it was Rico Rawls Jr., 22, who pulled the trigger after a "verbal altercation" at the couple's home at Fort Campbell.
"No one expected anything like this from him," explained Williams. She learned after the fact that Rawls Jr. led police on a massive high-speed chase across state borders, only to take his own life hours after shooting Jessica.
According to Williams, when her daughter met Rawls Jr. in the military, he was the "class clown type," always laughing and smiling.
Jessica had two daughters from a previous relationship and after marrying Rawls Jr. in the fall of 2009, the couple had a baby girl of their own on the way.
Williams described Rawls Jr. as a doting father who loved his daughter with all his heart. However, she noticed that after his deployments to Iraq, he came back a different person.
"He was different, quieter, more withdrawn," Williams explained.
Williams noticed that her daughter and son in law came home less frequently, missed holidays and parties, and began to argue more often.
A year prior to the shooting, Rawls Jr. pulled a knife on Jessica. He was charged with domestic violence, placed in anger management, and redeployed to Iraq, said Williams.
It was around that time that Williams thought Rawls Jr. might suffer from PTSD.
Copies of self-questionnaires in the months after deployment indicate Rawls Jr. complained of sleeping issues after initially reporting that he was fine.
According to Williams, Rawls Jr. was taking medicine to help him sleep; he suffered from nightmares, was withdrawn and exhibited what Williams believed to be obvious signs of the disorder.
"I don't think if he had been thinking clearly he would've done this, which is why I'm not angry at him," said Williams.
A few weeks before the murder-suicide, Williams visited the couple in Tennessee. They were planning to divorce but Williams described their encounter as amicable adding she saw no warning signs.
“There was no evidence of anything, not a violent guy, not fighting with people not getting into trouble,” Williams explained.
Williams has her own theory of what happened. She believes Rawls Jr. was surprised, and as hyperarousal is a symptom of PTSD, he acted out of character and shot his wife. However, with no eye witnesses to the encounter, no one will ever know exactly what happened.
Now, Williams has custody of the couple’s young daughter and knows that eventually she’ll have to explain what happened to her parents. But in the meantime, she hopes to raise greater awareness of PTSD and wants the military to consider input from family and friends when diagnosing mental disorders in returning service members.