BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.—When the phone rings in the middle of the night, it’s like an alarm going off in your brain. No one calls at one in the morning to say they were “just thinking of you.”
I received one of those calls 13 years ago and woke to my mom telling me my dad had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The words didn’t sink in right away; I had to ask her to repeat herself. I can’t imagine what she had to endure.
My dad was a Navy veteran and a high performer. He was incredibly successful as a nuclear power engineer. Unfortunately, he was not able to tackle life’s challenges without substance abuse or an addiction. These varied over the years, from gambling to drinking, to smoking, to overeating; he would replace one with another in a constant struggle to adapt to life. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect he filled the void with those substances because he didn’t have anyone to help him. As the breadwinner for the family, I think he felt he had to appear strong and deal with things on his own. This left him alone, with no one he could open up to about how he was feeling.
At the time of his death, it was very difficult for me to process my dad’s suicide without resentment. I felt he had damaged my mom. I felt he had committed a horribly selfish act. I felt angry that my mom and brother missed him so much when I didn’t find him to be a particularly good person. It never occurred to me how alone he felt in that moment, alone enough to see suicide as the only solution to end his pain.
A few years after this, I became a first sergeant and received extensive training on how to help those struggling with suicide. I also began counseling with suicide survivors and victims. These encounters educated me and gave me a new perspective on how people think when they are considering suicide and how to respond to them. When someone’s arm is cut off, we don’t just tell them to change their frame of mind and they’ll feel better. When someone is diabetic, we don’t tell them it’s unhealthy to take medication every day to survive. When someone has the flu, we don’t ask them, “Have you ever tried not having the flu?”
What I came to understand is that we should never minimize someone’s struggle and that we need to be there for our wingmen when they are going through rough patches. Isolation and hopelessness are dark times, and the permanent effects of decisions made in those times can create a ripple effect of sadness through families and organizations. If I were to hold a glass of water in my hand and stretch it out parallel to the floor, I could hold that glass for a while, but at some point, my arm would get tired and I would want to lower the glass. Life is like this. Everyone has a different point of exhaustion, and we must be aware of our own breaking point and our wingman’s. While we all cope differently with this exhaustion, building our social, mental, physical and spiritual resiliency is at the core of our strength.
The theme of this year’s Suicide Prevention Month is #BeThere and it stresses the social pillar of resiliency. This campaign resonates strongly with me because if my dad had just one person to give him hope, he might still be here today. It’s no one’s fault he is gone, but I believe that if he felt the care from people who did care for him, he would have given life another chance.
My challenge to you this month is to spend time building your community again. Reconnect with a friend and spend time together. I know we all have limited resources that make it difficult to set aside quality time for one another, but those moments build the trust, loyalty and commitment needed to open up to each other when things aren’t going well. Think about who you feel comfortable reaching out to, and ask yourself who feels comfortable reaching out to you. Let’s mean it when we say “I will never leave an Airman behind.” Let’s win the battle to save lives so no one else has to answer that call in the middle of the night. Everyday connections with our wingmen matter.
Editor’s note: If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or depression, seek help immediately. Talk to your wingman, chaplain or mental health professional. Confidential help is also available by contacting the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, Opt. 1, or www.MilitaryCrisisLine.net.