Suicide Prevention in the Air Force: One Loss Hurts Us All

|

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is November 19th. Find an event in your area.

Learn more about AFSP’s work with and for veterans.

The first time I encountered a suicidal person was when I was 16 at the local mall in Auburn, NY. His eyes looked sad and unfocused and his face was so blank: I knew I had to talk to him. We spoke outside for hours. I ran into him a week or two later. He thanked me and said he had planned to harm himself, but that our chat had changed his mind. All I could think to say was, “You’re welcome. Anytime.”

After I joined the Air Force, I was getting off shift one day at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, and I saw a guy with the same blank face. We walked and talked for hours. As a woman, I wasn’t allowed in his tent, so when we were through, I told his tent mate to watch him. Then I walked straight to the supervisor’s tent, and told him the situation. He assigned someone to watch him. The soldier was eventually sent to get help at a hospital in Germany. A few months later, I ran into him again. I was slightly worried; I knew he had been angry at me before he left for saying something. Instead, he sat down next me and said, “I hated you when you told leadership I was having a problem. But now I don’t. I’m grateful to you because I love life now.” That moment I realized that getting help won’t ruin your career, or your life.

Later, in 2006, I was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana.  It was a hard year for the base with changes and reductions. There were a few suicides that year. One of them was a friend of mine. I’ll never forget the month I spent helping his family. I had to stay strong for his wife while she made the funeral arrangements. But I couldn’t help thinking about how I hadn’t seen the warning signs in him that I’d previously seen in strangers. I went to talk to the chaplain, because I blamed myself for my friend’s death; to this day, I still have to remind myself that it wasn’t my fault.  When another friend on the base started to spiral, I directed him to the same chaplain I had talked to. It was amazing to watch him improve and start to enjoy life again. This is why After Action Response Teams like the one the Air Force has are so important. Events like a suicide death can cause a domino effect.

A few months later, the man I was dating came to me late at night. He had been missing; we had searched for him for hours. I had never seen his face that way. He looked so lost. He admitted to attempting suicide, and wanted my advice. I asked him his permission to remove his weapons from his house and truck. He agreed. He stayed in the hospital for a week and a half, went in again a few weeks later for a day or so, and then continued counseling for months. Each day, you could see the change in him for the better. Today, I’m blessed to call him my husband.

Human contact is so important. It’s crucial that you speak directly to someone you’re worried about. Through the resiliency program in the Air Force as a Resiliency Training Assistant, I’ve been able to talk about the experiences I’ve had, which led to others opening up and getting help. I also joined the committee in Fairbanks, Alaska for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walk. It helped a lot to hear others’ stories. I started getting the military involved, and was asked to organize an International Survivors of Suicide Loss event. It was the first time I’d ever been to a Survivor Day event, and I was the lead speaker! Doing these events has made me see that this is what I was meant to do: bring the light and love to people and help them heal.

I moved on to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and jumped right back into helping with the Out of the Darkness Walk. I then organized a Survivor Day event for the 58 Special Operations Wing. I was so excited when the wing commander approved it! A few months later, it was open to anyone at Kirtland with base access.

The Air Force is like a large extended family: one loss hurts us all. Every Air Force location has a Disaster Mental Health (DHM) team. But for many people, it’s hard to talk about mental health, and if trainings on the subject aren’t required, they just don’t go. There is now annual, mandatory, face-to-face suicide prevention and resiliency training.

Bringing Survivor Day events to the military community encourages people to speak up about their struggles, become more aware of the other people around them, and better able to recognize the warning signs of distress.

Just as one tragic event can have a ripple effect, so can education. One person learning about suicide prevention and mental health can help spread that awareness to everyone else on their base. The result is a community that’s stronger together.

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is November 19th. Find an event in your area.

Learn more about AFSP’s work and for veterans.