Bringing Hope and Suicide Prevention Resources to Veterans and Military Members
October 23, 2023 – 3 min read
This Volunteer Spotlight Story originally appeared in AFSP’s 2022 Annual Report. To read other inspiring Volunteer Spotlight Stories, and learn more about our exciting work, click here.
I thought I already knew about suicide prevention when my friend Jonathan died. I’d been working in the mental health career field for the United States Air Force for years. I was experienced in talking about it in a clinical context with patients, but when he died I found myself completely lost.
Jonathan was a Navy Veteran and an older friend of my cousin. He picked me up and helped me join the Air Force at a particularly difficult time in my life. I had left home, dropped out of high school, lost jobs, and eventually found myself sleeping in my car. I had pretty much given up on myself, but Jonathan always kept advocating for me. He believed I had potential and thought the Air Force would be a good place for me to “find my wings.” He provided me with a place to stay, rent-free, on the condition that I do whatever it takes to join the Air Force. He gave me a lot of much-needed mentorship and confidence, and even taught me algebra to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). It took almost two years to join, and he never made me feel like a burden. I was selected for the Mental Health career field in 2011. Jonathan and I remained close, and I continued seeking his mentorship over the years until his death in 2018.
After Jonathan died, I put together an Out of the Darkness Walk team in his memory. After the Walk, I showed up to a Talk Saves Lives™ presentation. I had given suicide prevention briefings for work, but had never seen anything so well put together. It was so colorful, well-paced, comprehensive, and digestible for a 45-minute presentation. I remember writing down a million notes and feeling inspired to improve our trainings at work! I eventually became a presenter and began getting involved in different committees throughout my chapter. I met some incredible volunteers and fell in love with AFSP. It really gave me a place to channel my grief positively.
Today I continue to serve in the Mental Health career field within the Air Force, and am the Military and Veteran Outreach Chair for AFSP‘s National Capital Area Chapter. I connect current and former service members to AFSP resources, and work with a network of military and veteran volunteers to bring programs to their own communities.
There are a lot of considerations for military members when it comes to mental health and suicide. It can be difficult to maintain meaningful connections when family and friends are hundreds of miles away and we move around so much. People typically just know you by your rank and last name, and in an environment where rank and social status are closely tied, it’s easy to feel as though our career success is a measure of our own worth. As leaders, we are charged to support the professional development and personal well-being of those around us. If one of our troops dies by suicide, it can feel like we failed them.
For new Veterans, transitioning out of the military can be difficult as well; it can feel like a lost sense of identity. There are also high rates of addiction and unresolved trauma that can make it even harder to reach out for help. It’s so important for Veterans to support one another.
To me, AFSP is the embodiment of effective leadership. Every volunteer can use their strengths and contribute in whatever capacity suits them. We all share the same mission — to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. It’s a privilege to help Veterans and military members connect and engage openly about mental health. Jonathan did so much for me and while I can’t ever pay him back, this is my way of paying it all forward.