By Capt. David Liapis, 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. (AFNS) — She was a hero. She was someone who had the courage to act when it mattered most. She was a true wingman. She saw the warning signs of depression and suicidal ideations in a friend, she made the right calls, made the right decisions and her friend’s life was saved. This Airman knew the warning signs well, because she had been there before.
I had the opportunity to meet this life-saving Airman after learning of her proactive intervention. I sat with her in my office as she tearfully related to me some of her personal experience with depression and thoughts of taking her own life, and how that helped her know what to do when she realized her friend felt she had reached the end of hope.
This Airman was able to meet with me that day because she sought help, and, thankfully and more importantly, she was there for her friend when she needed her the most. She said, “Asking for help is not a weakness. It’s a strength. You’ve got to be able to admit you need help, and that takes strength.”
About a year after I spoke with this “hero Airman,” I was informed that she had tragically taken her own life. I was stunned. How could an Airman who seemed to have risen from depression, and had even saved someone’s life, end up in a frame of mind where taking her life appeared her only option? What went wrong? Why didn’t her previous experiences and knowledge work?
The major lesson I learned from all of this was that preventing suicide is not a one-time event. This Airman’s saga demonstrates that we cannot assume that once someone has received mental health treatment and successfully walked through dark times that they’re inoculated and won’t relapse and require further help. We also can’t assume that just because someone acknowledges that they know asking for help is a sign of strength that they will actually do it (even if they have in the past).
I’m not insinuating that anyone who has sought mental health help or has expressed suicidal ideations should be on perpetual suicide watch. What I’m getting at is that we need to be engaged with our Airmen and know how they are doing no matter how “stable” or “unstable” we perceive them to be.
I was stationed at what was then Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and our wing commander was Brig. Gen. Thomas Tinsley. I remember attending a commander’s call at the base theater where Tinsley encouraged us to be good wingmen and to seek help if we needed it. He was clear in his delivery, confident as a leader and by all appearances had it all together. It was for these reasons I was shocked to learn only a couple weeks after that commander’s call that Tinsley had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. What went wrong? He was a general officer. I guess I assumed at the time that someone like him shouldn’t be at risk.
Mental health issues and factors that lead to suicide are no respecters of rank, job, gender or age. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking there’s a demographic that’s “safe” and to whom we don’t need to pay attention. Every Airman matters and we need to care for each other accordingly.
Really taking care of Airmen means more than passing them off to a helping agency, assuming they’re good to go, and then moving on. It means following up over the long term and not allowing ourselves to believe that anyone is immune from needing a helping hand, and more than just once. It may be that follow up is the difference between life and death.
Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is thinking about hurting yourself or others, help is available. Contact mental health, a chaplain, family advocacy or someone in your chain of command today, you can find helpful resources on your base’s resiliency Web page or the Air Force’s suicide prevention Web page.
Posted by Col. Christopher Cronce
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — It is every Airman’s responsibility to prevent suicide by building personal resiliency and by being a good wingman.
Prevention starts by recognizing the signs of suicide. These include displaying feelings of hopelessness, high levels of anxiety or self-destructive behaviors, withdrawing from family and friends, losing interest in one’s favorite activities, and even talking about death. Be aware of these behaviors in your wingmen…and in yourself.
First, it’s critically important to take care of yourself. By building personal resiliency – a balance of mental, physical, social and spiritual fitness – you will be able to withstand, recover and grow in the face of the challenges you encounter as an Individual Reservist.
I know it can be difficult to juggle two careers and a personal life, but I also know that by strengthening yourself in these four areas, you can make it through even the toughest situation.
In addition to building personal resiliency, we need to look out for one another. Know what’s going on in the lives of fellow Airmen, family members and friends. Keep a finger on the emotional pulse of your wingmen.
If something doesn’t seem right, be there to listen and support them. If your wingmen express thoughts of suicide, don’t leave their side. Help by getting them to a professional who can provide the care they need. If appropriate, don’t hesitate to call 911.
If you or a wingman are having thoughts of suicide, I implore you to get help. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. You should never feel ashamed to visit a chaplain, medical clinic or other mental health professional. The Air Force offers many resources to help in times of crisis, including:
- Military Crisis Line – 1-800-273-8255, press 1, text to 838255 or militarycrisisline.net
- Vets4Warriors peer support chat line – 855-838-8255 or vets4warriors.com
- Your unit chaplain, with whom you have 100 percent confidentiality
Remember, if you seek behavioral health care, federal law protects you against workplace discrimination.
Suicide is a complex issue involving a variety of difficult life circumstances. However, by taking steps to build personal resiliency and looking out for our wingmen, I know we can save lives.
Posted by Capt. Relinda Hatcher
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AFNS) — September 8-14 was National Suicide Prevention Week. However, many people are hesitant to get involved in the discussion on the topic of suicide prevention.
This is concerning because the ability to get involved and intervene is critical to saving lives.
Suicide and suicidal behavior affect all people, regardless of gender, race, sexual, or religious orientation. Suicide is a problem of epidemic proportions that spans across the globe. There are roughly 39,000 suicides annually in the United States and the number increases to 1 million worldwide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death amongst individuals aged 15-24 in the U.S.
Many individuals that have contemplated and completed suicide erroneously believe their death will not impact others; but the truth is suicide impacts entire communities. In fact, it is estimated that for every suicide there are at least six survivors. Not only does suicide impact others, it very often shatters and devastates the lives of family and friends for years to come.
Another common misconception about suicide is if people want to kill themselves, there is nothing anyone can about it. This is not true. Experts believe that most suicidal individuals do not want to die. They just want to end the pain they are experiencing. Experts also know that crisis tends to be brief. When suicidal intent or risk is detected early, lives can be saved.
Major depression is the psychiatric diagnosis most commonly associated with suicide. Leading mental health psychologists emphasize the strongest risk factor for suicide is depression, but the good news is that depression is treatable, and 80 percent of people who seek help for depression are treated successfully. Other risks factors include relationship problems, other mental illness, substance abuse, previous suicide attempts, hopelessness, access to lethal means, recent loss of loved ones and unemployment to name a few.
By promoting positive self-esteem, connectedness, resiliency and recognizing individual achievement; family members, co-workers, friends and wingmen can play a vital role in preventing suicides. If someone mentions they are thinking about committing suicide, never keep this information a secret because physicians, mental health providers, chaplains, first sergeants and commanders can expedite resources to assist individuals who are exhibiting severe depression or suicidal behaviors.
With this in mind it is also important to understand that people who seek help will not get into any trouble for seeking help, and since suicidal behaviors are considered medical emergencies, these individuals should see a doctor or mental health professional without delay. If a suicidal person has a plan, or is in the process of carrying out a plan, to commit suicide, contact emergency assistance immediately. On base you would contact security forces or the command post. For emergencies that occur off base, dial 911 or your local equivalent.
As Airmen, we live and breathe the wingman concept. As such, it is imperative that we look out for one another at all times, no matter the circumstance. How can we do this? We can do this by situational awareness, talking and listening to one another, getting to know co-workers, celebrating each other’s accomplishments, and by caring and encouraging one another.
Awareness, education and treatment are the keys to suicide prevention.
If someone mentions they are having thoughts about suicide, always take thoughts or plans seriously. If you are in a position to help, do not assume your presence is unwanted or intrusive. Your wingman needs your help, so stay vigilant ask, care, and escort.
For other resources, visit http://www.airforcemedicine.af.mil/suicideprevention/
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — The life of comedian and actor Robin Williams tragically ended on Aug.11. His life affected millions, and yet he was alone when he died. The circumstances of his passing demonstrates the importance of a wingman.
Williams, who first came to prominence as the alien Mork from Ork in the mid-1970s, is remembered for his manic energy and freestyle stand-up comedy.
He was also there for those with whom he worked and fondly remembered for offering the support his friends needed to make it through their personal struggles. He made several USO tours to entertain troops and took time to sign autographs, shake hands and share jokes on an intimate, personal level.
Robin Williams was one of the greatest Wingmen we’ve ever known. Even if you never met him, there’s a good chance one of his jokes or characters lifted you up when you were feeling down.
There is always tragedy in death, and Williams’ is no exception. However, there is more than just the tragedy of a life cut short. The tragedy here is the missing Wingman.
There are two missing wingmen in this tragedy. One, Williams is no longer able to help others. Two, where was his wingman during his personal struggle?
Williams’ struggles were not kept secret. He openly discussed his addiction and his efforts to shake it. It seemed like he quietly cried for help. In interviews, Williams indicated struggles with loneliness during his younger years. His publicist informed news sources that Williams struggled with depression. Williams admitted he struggled with addiction. He sought help in rehab, and had recently entered it again.
The tragedy of Williams’ untimely death is no joke. Even in film, many of the characters he portrayed proved to be invaluable Wingmen. Where would Aladdin be without the Genie? What would happen to the Hillard family if Mrs. Doubtfire hadn’t been there to help them through their time of need?
It’s ironic that the man who gave us so many smiles left us in tears. Perhaps if he had a Wingman to walk with him through his low time, like he had been to so many others, we would be laughing still instead of reminiscing behind watering eyes.
So reach out to your Wingman, because we need each other, through all the highs and lows.
When it seems like your Wingman is on top of the world, rest assured that they may be facing a deep valley very soon.
Don’t be the missing wingman.
Posted by Jonathan Stock, Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
WASHINGTON (AFNS) — All Airmen have a responsibility that last much longer than a one-month campaign. This responsibility extends beyond ourselves and includes our work environment, our families, friends, fellow Airmen and our communities.
While Suicide Prevention Month is observed across the United States in September, the month-long event is a reminder of everyone’s 24/7, 365-day responsibility to be a true Wingman. That means knowing our fellow Airmen, family members, coworkers and what is happening in their lives, as well as being willing and able to support them when they are facing challenges that test their resilience.
The Air Force has undertaken several initiatives to improve resilience for individuals and our communities. These efforts can be found under the umbrella of Comprehensive Airmen Fitness (CAF) which focuses on maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle across physical, mental, social and spiritual domains. Individuals practicing comprehensive fitness are more likely to seek help when needed and be able to identify risk factors and warning signs when an individual is off balance.
“Prevention begins with each individual working to strengthen and maintain their overall well-being across all CAF domains, as well as being able to identify when thers need help. A good Wingman offers help knowing what resources are available, and follows up to stand by their side throughout a challenge,” said Lt. Col. Kathleen Crimmins, Air Force Suicide Prevention manager. “Assisting Airmen to get help… whether peer or professional, is what a Wingman does.”
ACE A number of resources are available to include the Air Force Suicide Prevention website, the Airman’s Guide for Assisting Personnel in Distress, the Military Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255, press 1, text 838255, or go online to chat at www.militarycrisisline.net, with access to peer counselors in person and through online chats and text messaging.
You can also find help by contacting your local agencies who make up the installation Integrated Delivery System.
In addition to the crisis phone line, help is also available through the Vets4Warriors peer support chat line at 855-838-8255 or online at www.vets4warriors.com. This line will connect an individual with veteran peers who understand the unique challenges of military life and assist with problem solving and resolution.
Family members, retirees, and veterans can also use these resources for themselves if they feel the need to speak with someone.
According to Crimmins, Air Force mental health clinics reported an increase in the number of visits annually over the last few years which are positive results of the Air Force’s effort to remove the perceived stigma of seeking help. Leaders at all levels must continue to promote and encourage individuals to seek support agencies and clinician services as a normal step in maintaining a good work and life balance.
Early resolution of stress helps Airmen maintain a balanced lifestyle, which in turn allows them to withstand, recover and grow in the face of adversity.
“We can all make a difference by helping our Wingmen understand they are not alone,” said Crimmins. “Sharing our stories and highlighting our own personal resilience and perseverance will let others know their Air Force family is behind them and those needing help are not alone.”
For more information and resources, visit the Air Force Suicide Prevention website at www.airforcemedicine.af.mil/suicideprevention.
CALL TO ACTION: One of the most effective ways to promote the 24/7/365 approach to suicide prevention is for Airmen, their families or friends to step forward and share their own experiences of how they recognized they needed help and sought out support and resources. Perhaps your resilience was tested in some way; or someone close to you had their resilience challenged and you reached out to them. We want to hear your stories of resilience encouraging others to seek treatment and understand what resources are there to help. Use the following guidelines when submitting a commentary to your local Public Affairs office.
Original article can be found at: http://www.af.mil/News/ArticleDisplay/tabid/223/Article/494827/suicide-prevention-more-than-a-month-long-campaign.aspx
“Suicide prevention remains a top priority of Air Force leadership, and we remain committed to doing everything possible to save lives. The Air Force Suicide Prevention Program (AFSPP), launched in 1996 and fully implemented by 1997, emphasizes leadership involvement and a community approach to reducing deaths from suicide. The program is an integrated network of policy and education that focuses on reducing suicide through the early identification and treatment of those at risk. It uses leaders as role models and agents of change, establishes expectations for Airman behavior regarding awareness of suicide risk, develops population skills and knowledge, and analyzes every suicide.”
— Lieutentant General Darrell D. Jones about Air Force suicide programs March 21, 2013 before the U.S. House of Representative Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel
The AF Suicide Prevention Program is built on 11 overlapping core elements stressing leadership and community involvement in the prevention of suicides. It is one < 20 evidence based programs listed in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence- Based Programs and Practices.
1. Leadership Involvement: AF leaders actively support the entire spectrum of suicide prevention initiatives in the community.
2. Addressing Suicide Prevention through Professional Military Education: PME provides periodic and targeted Suicide Prevention training for Airmen, specifically oriented to the individual’s rank and level of responsibility.
3. Guidelines for Commanders: Use of Mental Health Services: Commanders receive training on how and when to use mental health services and guidance on their role in encouraging early help seeking behavior.
4. Unit-based Preventive Services: Helping-agency professionals partner with unit leaders to provide services at the work site to increase access, encourage help-seeking, and promote familiarity, rapport, and trust with Airmen and families.
5. Wingman Culture: Wingmen practice healthy behaviors and make responsible choices and encourage others to do the same. Wingmen foster a culture of early help-seeking. Wingmen recognize the signs and symptoms of distress in themselves and others and take protective action.
6. Investigative Interview Policy: Following any investigative interview, the investigator is required to ‘hand-off’ the individual directly to the commander, first sergeant, or supervisor. The unit representative is then responsible for assessing the individual’s emotional state and contacting a mental health provider if any question about the possibility of suicide exists.
7. Post Suicide Response (Postvention): Suicide impacts coworkers, families, and friends. Offering support early is associated with increased help-seeking behavior.
8. Integrated Delivery System (IDS) and Community Action Information Board (CAIB): At the Air Force, MAJCOM, and base levels, the CAIB and IDS provide a forum for the cross-organizational review and resolution of individual, family, installation, and community issues that impact the force readiness and the quality of life.
9. Limited Privilege Suicide Prevention Program: Patients undergoing legal action who are at risk for suicide are afforded increased confidentiality when seen by mental health providers.
10. Commanders Consultation Assessment Tool: Commanders use a variety of assessments (e.g., Support and Resilience Inventory, Unit Climate Assessment) recommended by appropriate agencies, to gain insight into unit strengths and areas of vulnerability.
11. Suicide Event Tracking and Analysis: Information on all AF suicides and suicide attempts are entered into a central database, currently the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER), to identify suicide risk factors and trends.
Find additional resources and information here: http://www.airforcemedicine.af.mil/suicideprevention/index.asp
There are plenty of reasons to contact Vets4Warriors. Here are just a few:
- They provide Active Duty Service members, National Guard and Reserve members and their families worldwide with peer-to-peer support. Peer-to-peer support is available to Service members 24/7, and is toll-free throughout the U.S.
- Their call center is staffed with Veterans and family members representing all branches of service.
- Their Veterans have been there and understand the problems unique to military life and know your benefits and resources.
- The call center’s Veterans provide information and referrals as needed.
- They will assist you in setting a plan to overcome adversity, manage stress, and build resilience.
- Their family peers are trained to assist families, caregivers and survivors with their challenges and concerns with support and referrals.
- They provide peer support and follow up for those with ongoing concerns. For those in crisis we will connect you with the Military Crisis Line.
- Your call is confidential. Their Veterans do not discuss calls with anyone and if callers choose, they can remain anonymous.
Posted by Master Sgt. Matthew McGovern
It was 1999, and a young weather officer appeared to have everything going for him: a wife, Linda, two handsome teenage sons whom he adored, J.R. and Ryan, and a promising Air Force career for this prior-enlisted officer.
On the surface, things appeared to be going well. However, pressure was mounting that no one could see.
With overwhelming pressure at work, unresolved marital issues, separation from his family and agonizing feelings of extreme hopelessness, on March 11, 1999, Capt. Robert Swanson, decided to end his life.
Thankfully, he survived his attempt and eventually received help through Air Force therapists who want Airmen to persevere during difficult times and seek help before suicide seems like an option.
Fifteen years later, Swanson, now a colonel and the Pacific Air Forces chief of weather operations, knows suicide wasn’t the right answer to his problems and is encouraging Airmen to seek help before life’s issues get too overwhelming.
He found not only the hope he craved, but also life-renewing reasons to keep on living.
“If I could tell this young captain anything, I’d tell him to hang on; the future gets better,” he explained. “I’d tell him he’d miss the opportunity to see his boys grow into young men, and that he’d miss the opportunity to see the pain and agony subside and the chance to see the sunshine again.”
His path to healing was not easy. He met with a psychiatrist almost daily for six months for intense therapy sessions designed to put him back on the path to a healthy state of being.
“I read your file; you’re really good at telling us everything we want to hear,” his psychiatrist told him. “I’ve seen your IQ and you’re smarter than I am. Nothing I’m going to do, or say, is going to get through to you, until you are willing to take a chance, and let me try to help you.”
Only when he was ready to accept his psychiatrist’s advice did he start to heal — and the healing came almost immediately.
“We got rid of the anti-depressants,” Swanson said. “I hated them, and they really interfered with me making real progress.”
His psychiatrist taught him how to look at the world realistically; how to examine different events in his life, sort through his reactions to these events and figure out what is normal behavior and what emotions are distorted.
“People who are depressed have a distorted view of the world,” Swanson explained. “For example, if a depressed person breaks a glass, they feel terrible, like an utter failure as if nothing is ever going to work again properly.”
Since 1999, Swanson learned how to face life’s challenges head on and understands that negative feelings like anger, depression and guilt don’t result from bad things that happen to him, but from the way he thinks about them.
He learned to make changes on his road to happiness including remarrying and accomplishing many of his life-long goals, including earning his Ph.D., completing more than 20 marathons, witnessing his sons graduate from college and achieving the rank of colonel.
“I’m at the happiest point in my life now and I want to show others that they also can make it through and be happy again,” he said.
Swanson went to making the hardest decisions of his life as a colonel — to go public about his suicide attempts in hope of possibly reaching someone struggling with overwhelming emotional pain.
“I’ve been thinking about coming forward for quite some time,” Swanson said. “I can’t help but feel that one of the reasons I’m here, and why I survived two suicide attempts, is to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
With the uncertainty sequestration has on the Air Force, and the ongoing force-shaping decisions affecting every Airman, he thought this was a critical time to come forward.
“I know our Airmen are worried about what will happen next with their careers, will they survive force shaping and if not how it will it affect them and their loved ones,” Swanson said. “It is to be expected that Airmen may be a little anxious, depressed, sad and overwhelmed with emotion and not know exactly how to handle it. Some may even reach the point that I reached on March 11, 1999, when I tried to take my own life — this is why I have decided to come forward.”
Lt. Col. Andrew Cruz, the PACAF chief of mental health services, is hopeful that more Airmen will seek assistance when needed.
“It’s important to understand that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of courage and strength,” Cruz said. “The Air Force is doing its best to change the stigma of mental health, primarily through our communication efforts and how it’s characterized. The mental health clinic is just one resource. People can access military family life consultants, Military OneSource, chaplains, behavioral health providers in patient centered clinics, and many other national and local help resources.”
Swanson encourages all Airmen to remember to keep wingman communication lines open and to take the opportunity to seek help from chaplains, mental health, and other trained therapists, if needed — for yourself or others.
“The right mechanism to receive help is different for everybody. It’s finding that right person and getting to the point where you accept there may be an alternative future,” he explained. “Not every psychiatrist, psychologist or chaplain is going to be the right person for that. You’ve got to connect with your therapist, and sometimes it may take similar backgrounds or personalities to make this happen.”
Suicide is a decision that can’t be undone and Swanson is proof that those feelings of depression and hopelessness can be overcome with the right help — life does get better.
“What I know for sure is that suicide is a permanent fix to short-term problems,” Swanson said. “But I can promise you, that if you work hard at changing how you view the challenges we all face in life, you can get through anything — and I mean anything. So I encourage everyone who is a part of our Air Force family to seek the help they need to get them back on the road to a healthier outlook on life.”
The Air Force wants all Airmen to seek help early before life’s problems become overwhelming and lead to distress.
For more information about suicide awareness and prevention, call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 836255 or visit http://www.afms.af.mil/suicideprevention.
PHOTO: Col. Robert Swanson recently came forward to express his desire to testify of a time in which he attempted to end his own life earlier in his Air Force career. Swanson said it’s critical that Airmen keep communication lines open, and to seek out help from a source that works for them and that they can connect with. Swanson is the Pacific Air Forces chief of weather operations at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Staff Sgt. Nathan Allen/Released)
Posted by Senior Airman Meredith A.H. Thomas
JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. — The 315th Airlift Wing here became the first Air Force Reserve Command unit to hire a director of psychological health to assist reservists with mental health issues.
A licensed clinical social worker and internationally certified addictions specialist, Regan Morris is uniquely qualified to help reservists at Joint Base Charleston navigate the myriad of challenges facing them in today’s fast-paced military environment.
Since 2004 she has helped hundreds of redeploying service members demonstrating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse integrate back into civilian life.
“The focus is on the whole person,” Morris said. “We want to make sure that Airmen are healthy, not only physically, spiritually and emotionally, but mentally as well.”
A guidance paper released by AFRC outlines the duties of these newly-minted mental health professionals. Morris will attend unit training assemblies to perform mental health assessments and provide help to those who need it most while they are on station for their monthly duty.
Although she is authorized to offer short-term clinical help to reservists, Morris explained that her main objective is to provide counseling and support outside the formal office setting. She plans to hold classes and support groups for those Airmen demonstrating a need. Additionally, she is tasked to focus on suicide prevention by teaching all Airmen to recognize warning signs and symptoms.
“Ultimately, the goal is to foster an atmosphere and culture of psychological health,” said Morris. “We need to dissipate the stigma surrounding ‘mental health’ in order to offer real and potentially life-saving, services.”
The AF Reserve initiative seeks to hire 29 directors of psychological health throughout the command whose focus will be on maintaining the mental wellness of Airmen and their families.
“Similar programs exist already on the active duty side and in the Guard,” said Morris. “But this is a first for the Air Force Reserve. I’m excited to use my collective experience, and my strength and hope, to help Airmen and to be the model program for the Air Force Reserve.”
Posted by Col. Donald Grannan
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) — She was an Airman Leadership School distinguished graduate, earned staff sergeant her first time testing, received all 5s on her enlisted performance reports and took part in two deployments. Clearly she was a high-performing Airman.
But, in her words, the Air Force had made it clear it didn’t want her. Huh?
I have proudly served our Air Force all of my adult life, so I truly didn’t understand. Although I wasn’t in her chain of command, I’ve known this young woman throughout her career. I tried to reflect on this from a professional, albeit admittedly biased, point of view. What would make this superstar believe we didn’t care if she stayed or not?
Was it a bad first impression? I remembered an incident that involved her as a new Airman at her first duty station. A senior NCO struck her car from behind in a minor fender-bender. Instead of admitting fault and moving on, he berated and intimidated this young Airman about the issue. Her first sergeant, who she looked to for help, would not interject or discuss the issue with the senior NCO. I could have interjected as well, but I mistakenly believed it wasn’t my place. It was. An Airman needed help, and no one gave it.
Was it a lack of encouragement? After she earned staff sergeant her first time eligible, she saw the results online on the Air Force Web. Then … nothing until the following Monday when the first sergeant stopped by to congratulate her and said the commander was “really busy.”
When she was a distinguished graduate from Airman Leadership School, it was a highlight in her career. But other than her immediate supervisor, no one from her squadron chain of command was present. I know, because I was there.
Was it motivation? She was a veteran of two deployments, including one where she had a few days notice to support a humanitarian operation. By chance I saw her and another Airman at a connecting airport as I was returning from a temporary duty assignment. I saw their apprehension and anxiety and made sure they understood to take care of each other, trust their training and focus on the mission. But I wondered if their own leadership had talked to them like this.
Did we at least send her out the door with a smile, to encourage others toward an Air Force career? No. Instead her superiors decided there would be no decoration for this outstanding Airman who achieved a lot in a short period of time and who was highly lauded by her supervisors.
Why? Because she had once failed a physical fitness test, immediately re-took it, and passed. She had tried to ‘wing it,’ failed the run and learned a lesson.
This young, healthy Airman, who weighs a buck-twenty-five, did not have a fitness or standards problem. She had a leadership problem. No one in her squadron leadership knew about or was present to witness her exceptional duty performance, her distinguished graduate accomplishment, her two deployments or early promotion. But they sure knew about the one time she stumbled.
In the end we took an exceptional, highly motivated volunteer and did we mold her? No way. Did we encourage her? Not a chance. Did we create a new leader? No. We created someone who cares about our nation but is disillusioned and frustrated about what our Air Force finds important and unimportant. We lost an enormous opportunity, and we can’t afford to repeat that mistake.
Today, more than ever, as our ranks continue to decline, we must retain the best and most highly motivated Airmen. To do that, we have to lead them, be in the fight with them and focus on what’s truly important and not become hyper-focused on marginal or anecdotal issues.
How many more situations like this are out there? If you’re in a leadership position, are you part of this problem? Do you know the people under you? Are you in the fight, witnessing their capabilities, encouraging and motivating them, or do you only know about them when they stumble? If you think command or leadership positions are just another assignment, you’re part of the problem.
Ask yourself, when was the last time a troop brought you a problem? If that’s not happening, it’s because they don’t believe you can, or will, help them. So get busy proving to them they can count on you, and you’ll be surprised how well you can count on them.
Posted by Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Mazzone, 6th Air Mobility Command Chief
MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — In the 1990’s it was not uncommon for an Airman to hear the phrase “Suck it up!” It was also rare to find the supervisor who would encourage Airmen to seek help to work through mental health concerns. It seemed the Senior Noncommissioned Officers were worried more about maintaining the appearance of a strong and ready force. Unbeknownst to them, they were raising Airmen who would be exactly what they wanted: hard core NCOs who were afraid to show emotion, and even worse, afraid to get help. We have the opportunity to break the cycle. Are you up for the challenge?
In 2004, a technical sergeant found himself sitting in a corner of a darkened room in the back of his house, sobbing. He was alone, and his life had just fallen out from under his feet. For more than 30 hours he sat there, cried there and slept there. He didn’t eat and he didn’t drink. He simply stared at the emptiness in front of him, wondering how this had happened. How had his life gone from seemingly normal to quiet chaos in less than a day? He didn’t know how to ask for help.
He was in no condition to dissect his situation, as he lacked rational thought and had just sustained fresh, deep emotional wounds. Sitting in that corner, he challenged his faith; asking how his God could allow something so wicked to occur. He challenged himself, wondering if he didn’t do enough to keep this from happening. The phone rang as he sat there. He thought about unplugging it, but it was too far away. He wondered about “making the pain go away,” but instead he rolled over to fall asleep yet again. This time he awoke to the sound of his name being yelled in his own house. He never cried out “I’m back here, please help me!”
When they found him, he was a wreck. His legs were weak and he didn’t want to move. He just wanted his life back…he wanted his family back. He wanted things to be the way they were before, even though he knew that was not possible. One person walked him to the living room couch. Another got him some water. They sat there in silence with him, waiting patiently, hoping he would say something. He was ashamed and didn’t speak. He couldn’t stomach the thought of people knowing about this, even if they were his friends. He felt they wouldn’t be able to do anything for him, and he never asked them to find someone who could help.
One of them contacted the first sergeant, who arrived soon after. Together, they started doing things for him…simple things. They turned on the shower, they got him clean clothes, they made him a bowl of cereal and they drove him to see his commander. He sat in the office; his commander making the time to listen to nothing being said, only the sobs of a broken man. Finally, he was asked if he would like to see a chaplain or someone from mental health.
I said “no”, because I was scared and because that’s the way I was raised in the Air Force. I was taught that seeking help was a sign of weakness, that it hurt careers and it could negatively impact the mission. My commander didn’t force me. Instead he made a deal with me. He made me promise to answer the door no matter what time there was a knock, and to answer the phone at any hour. He pulled me from the flight schedule to ensure my personal safety and the safety of my fellow crewmates. He knew my passion for history and instructed me to begin a research project for the unit. All the while, he reminded me constantly of my options to speak with someone, and that it was a path back to wellness. After weeks of not smiling and busy work meant to keep my mind occupied, I finally told someone I was ready to talk.
There was no pause. I was immediately driven the 15 miles to our supporting hospital, and met with someone who wanted only to learn about what happened to make me go through the pain I felt. She gained my trust, assuring me that these steps to heal myself were courageous. It took time, but I worked through it. It took friends who legitimately cared about me, and did whatever was needed. It took a command team to let me know it was okay to expose my wounds, since that was the only way to heal them. It took more time, but I was finally back in the air, doing what I loved, safely. It took a lot of people doing a lot of things at just the right time to make sure I was cared for. They never let me feel as though I was on my own. It also took a patient and loving God to wait for me to come back, and to show me there is a purpose for everything.
Since then, I’ve tried hard to crush the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues by being an example of a compassionate leader. But it wasn’t until recently that I decided the best example I could use was my own. I intend to continue spreading the message that it’s okay to ask for help. After mustering the courage to seek the assistance others wanted for me, I took to the path. It led me on a journey of self-discovery and helped to rebuild my confidence. In the aftermath, I continued to earn positions of responsibility, and maintained my high level security clearance. I was screened and designated to work for a special mission unit, promoted to chief master sergeant, and eventually selected to be a command chief.
The previous paragraph is not boastful pride. It’s meant to encourage those who may be sitting in a similar dark corner, with what appears to be no place to go. I promise you there is a safe place, and I challenge you to ask for help. If I can crawl from my own hell with the help of others, I know you can too. I also have a message for the “dinosaurs” that remain entrenched in the belief that asking for help is weak: You’re keeping your Airmen from reaching their full potential. That is exactly the opposite of what good leaders do. We should be inspiring our Airmen, and conditioning them to seek whatever help they need in order to succeed personally and professionally. Healthy Airmen accomplish the mission efficiently, and with pride.
There are so many men and women with whom we serve who have made a leap of faith and found fulfillment on the other side. All it takes is the courage to ask for help.
Posted by Patricia Kime
At the outset of Suicide Prevention Awareness month, the Pentagon wants service members experiencing a crisis to make a call.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that seeking mental health treatment is a “choice that embodies moral courage, honor and integrity” and recommended those who need help call the Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255, anytime.
“The Department of Defense has no more important responsibility than supporting and protecting those who defend our country, and that means we must do everything possible to prevent military suicide. … No one who serves this country in uniform should ever feel they have nowhere to turn,” Hagel said in a prepared statement.
This year, at least 157 active-duty and mobilized National Guard and reserve troops died by suicide, according to data provided by the military services.
The pace is down from last year during the same period, but 2012 was a record year for self-inflicted deaths — 350.
Suicide Prevention Office Director Jacqueline Garrick said officials are working to reduce the stigma of seeking behavioral health treatment and promoting programs that stress prevention and intervention during personal crises.
“We are trending below both suicide and suicide attempts from the previous year, although many are still pending cases,” Garrick told Military Times in August. “We hope it is a measure that we are getting our message out and people are seeking help.”
DoD has invested more than $100 million in research on substance abuse and mental health conditions and also is tamping down on alcohol and drug abuse in the ranks, Hagel said.
Pentagon studies have found that most service members who die by suicide are young, white, male and never deployed. Forty-seven percent experienced a failed intimate relationship before they died, and 37 percent faced work-related or legal problems in the months before their deaths.
Roughly 20 percent of the 301 service members who died by suicide in 2011 were found to have been drinking at the time of their deaths, and 9 percent were under the influence of drugs.
But drug and alcohol use were more common in nonfatal attempts, with 64 percent of the 598 troops known to have tried suicide in 2011 using drugs and 31 percent involving alcohol.
A large study of troops by military researchers recently caused waves when it found that combat deployments and exposure to war have not been major factors in military suicides.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that issues like mental health disorders and alcohol abuse played a significant role, as they do in civilian suicides.
The review indicated that being male, drinking heavily and/or suffering from depression or bipolar disorder were associated more with suicide than deployment, regardless of the number of days spent deployed, number of deployments or length of combat exposure.
Experts say that the study findings could hinder efforts to address suicidal behavior among troops and veterans.
“I’m concerned that some might take this and say, ‘It’s not deployments. We don’t need to worry about this,” Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of Give an Hour, a non-profit that provides mental health counseling to personnel and veterans, told the New York Times.
The Veterans Affairs Department earlier this year estimated that about 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
DoD and VA have combined some prevention and treatment efforts, promoting the Military/Veterans Crisis Line and programs to ease the stress of transitioning between active duty and veteran status.
In June, the departments also published clinical practice guidelines for physicians to understand the differences between at-risk troops and civilians.
Posted by Rebecca Buyrlo
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFNS) —
Nine pills in one hand, a glass of pop in the other, she was on the verge of swallowing death.
Screams from her husband stopped LaTonya Lewis from committing suicide. Military OneSource and months of therapy helped heal the aftermath.
Stronger now to cope with the illnesses that almost cost her her life, Lewis, the community support coordinator at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., uses her past and her passion to oversee and promote base agencies that can help others heal and move on.
The same way Military OneSource helped Lewis, the other agencies of the Integrated Delivery System help military families at Maxwell AFB and Gunter Annex carry the weight of life’s struggles, Lewis said.
“Every member on that team is there so the weight on your shoulders doesn’t get too heavy to where you begin to crumble,” Lewis said. “We want to be able to be on your shoulders helping you hold the world up and let you know you got it.”
Dedicated to serving and repairing an individual’s mental, spiritual, physical or social states, IDS agencies were created solely to help maintain a healthy military community in all areas of life.
Such IDS agencies include child and youth programs, the Airman and family readiness center, base chapel, mental health clinic, health and wellness center, educational and developmental intervention services, family advocacy, sexual assault response coordinator, Military OneSource, equal opportunity office, military family life consultant, key spouses and the spouses’ clubs.
Each agency comes together under one system to ensure the care, safety and health of those associated with the base and provide them with whatever they need to thrive at home, at work and in life, Lewis said.
“The point is for those agencies to come together as a team and to work together to take care of the community,” Lewis said. “They feed the community with the nourishment and nutrients that they need.”
To care for an individual’s mental state, agencies focus on the mind’s awareness, adaptability, decision making and positive thinking.
Agencies help renew an individual’s core values or beliefs, perspective, perseverance and purpose in servicing the spirit. To strengthen the physical body, agencies help improve one’s endurance, nutrition, recovery and strength. Finally, communication, connectedness, support and teamwork among family, friends and coworkers improve the social environment of military families.
Comprised of a diverse team of military, civilian, contractors and spouses, each agency is able to provide a wide variety of perspectives, professional advice and personal experiences to those they help.
Each one is a hero, said Col. Trent Edwards, the 42nd Air Base Wing commander.
“The IDS and all the people who comprise the IDS agencies are heroes to me,” Edwards said. “They are charged with educating, training, inspiring and uplifting Airmen and families. When life happens and people need help carrying the load, the IDS is there for them.”
Edwards said he hopes others can benefit and be encouraged by Lewis’ story.
It took a lot of courage and strength for Ms. LaTonya Lewis to share her personal story and triumph,” he said. “She is a great example of how Airmen can benefit from IDS and go on to achieve success in life.”
Lewis encourages everyone to visit or call an agency if they or someone they know needs help. Doing so promotes and improves the health of a strong, united Air Force family, she said.
“We don’t want to have a suicide, we don’t want to have another lost person, we don’t want to have another hurt person, we don’t want to have another divorce, we don’t want to have another runaway child, we don’t want to have another broken home, we don’t want anything else destroyed,” Lewis said.
“We want to have our Maxwell and Gunter family glued together,” she said. “The doors are open and the phones are ready to be answered.”
Posted by MSgt. Mark R. Lis
In mid-May I attended the funeral of a friend, classmate, and fellow veteran. His passing was the second suicide this year of a family friend. His troubles were many and he hid them well. We spoke often and had many war stories to tell each other. I had seen him at least once a week at our Student Veterans Alliance meetings at a local community college and he seemed to be no different than any other Afghanistan-Iraq veteran trying to find his way back into society.
On May 11th my friend was supposed to meet other Student Veteran Alliance members at the local cemetery to help decorate veterans’ graves with new flags for the Memorial Day holiday. When he didn’t show up, people started to wonder where he was and eventually notified the police of his disappearance. Later his body was discovered in a local forest. This young man, a decorated Marine veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, a husband and father and hero, had taken his own life. We all were devastated.
What circumstances led this veteran to the point where he could not go on? We now know that he had some problems, just like all of us. Money troubles, family issues, and the lack of meaningful employment, coupled with the stress of having been deployed, all probably played a role. Yes, as military members we all have been where he was, but what makes someone think that he can’t go on with life? I don’t know if we ever will have the answers to a question like that. Having been in the military for over twenty years, I have been to countless briefings on suicide and suicide prevention. In the aftermath of my friend’s death, however, I had many questions for myself. Why did I not see this coming? What could I have done to make it possible for this young man to still be here today, enjoying his family, his friends and his life?
In truth, it is possible that no one could have stopped my friend from taking his life. When someone decides he wants to commit suicide, it can be difficult to recognize the warning signs and get him to the help that he needs. But we need to be aware of the signals that someone could be contemplating such an action. Any of the following could be potential warning signs that someone is thinking of committing suicide:
Depression. Individuals contemplating suicide experience many different emotions, including sadness, hopelessness and anxiety. Depression usually includes a loss of interest in life and the things that are happening around the depressed person. Major depression, when discovered in time, can be treated through medication and therapy.
Talking about dying. Those who are considering suicide will often be thinking about methods by which they can kill themselves. They’ll sometimes discuss with others different ways in which they can die. They may also be thinking about ways in which others have killed themselves.
Sleep patterns. Someone who’s depressed and considering suicide may experience a change in sleeping habits. A depressed person may move from following a regular schedule to sleeping for long periods of time or, alternately, to becoming hyperactive, restless, and not sleeping at all.
Concentration. A loss of focus at work or in school, as well as in extra-curricular activities, may also be a symptom of depression. If you notice someone is not putting as much effort into life as usual, it can be a sign that he or she is depressed.
Change in eating habits. Many times those considering suicide will experience either a loss of or extreme increase in appetite. Depressed people may gain or lose a lot of weight over a short period of time.
Low self-esteem. Feelings of worthlessness and guilt often play a part in the desire to commit suicide. Those contemplating taking their own lives may also suddenly seem not to like anyone else.
Lack of goals. Those who are contemplating suicide will exhibit a disinterest in the future and in any goals they have previously wanted to reach. They’ll also seem to not care about current events happening around them that relate to the future.
Making arrangements. People thinking about suicide may start arranging for someone to take care of their animals or possessions. They may also begin giving away possessions that are important to them. Some make out wills in order to be sure that everything is taken care of after they’re gone.
Loss of control. Outbursts of anger or sadness that happen without warning are sometimes a symptom of depression and thoughts of suicide. This loss of control may also include harming or directing harm towards others.
History. The loss of a loved one, job, relationship, money, friend, or even religious belief may lead to suicidal ideation. The decision to stop attending events may also be a sign that someone is losing interest in life.
What should you do if you recognize the signs that someone may be thinking of committing suicide? People who receive support from caring friends and family, and who have access to mental health services, are less likely to act on suicidal impulses than those who are socially isolated:
Don’t be afraid to ask a relative, friend, or acquaintance directly if he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide.
If you become concerned that someone you know is at risk for suicide, don’t leave that individual alone; if possible, ask for help from his or her family or friends. Try to keep everyone involved in the situation calm.
Ask the person to give you any weapons he or she might have. Take away or remove sharp objects or anything else that the person could use to hurt himself or herself.
In some cases, the person is just looking for the chance to talk about his or her feelings and just needs to know that someone cares. It’s ok to listen, but you should then encourage him or her to seek professional help.
Call 911 or take the person to an emergency room.
Can suicide be prevented? In many cases, it can’t with any certainty, but the likelihood of suicide can be reduced with timely intervention. Research suggests that the best way to prevent suicide is to know the risk factors, be alert to the signs of depression and other mental disorders, recognize the warning signs, and intervene before the person can complete the process of self-destruction. As senior leaders to our troops, it is our job to take care of them. Get to know those serving under your direction. Ask them questions and show you care for their well-being. Your genuine concern for your Airmen may be just what they need to help them realize that someone cares for them and that they will be taken care of should they enter a time of crisis.