It wasn't supposed to be like this

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jonathan Tamblyn
  • 54th Air Refueling Squadron commander
After parking the Air Force staff car beside the yard, the chaplain, the nurse and I got out of the car and took a moment to look over each other's service dress. We had been steeling ourselves for this moment most of the afternoon.

As a death notification team, it was our job to inform a newly bereaved father about the tragic death of his Air Force son.

In a very rare Air Force Personnel Center decision, the signed letter I would read to the father stated the suspected cause of death was suicide.

Many of you can't read the word "suicide" without feeling the pangs of a tragic loss you have already experienced in your life due to someone else's decision to prematurely end his or her own life. Although the pain of suicide is staggering, the risk of suicide may be more pervasive than previously thought.

In a 2008 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it was found that "nearly 8.3 million adults (age 18 and older) in the U.S. had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year."

The study also showed that 2.3 million adult Americans made a suicide plan within the past year and that 1.1 million adults actually attempted suicide within the past year."

Hidden within these staggering statistics, you find too many servicemembers who have also been suicidal.

Lately, military suicides have been on the rise.

The Houston Chronicle did an analysis and found suicides of "Texans younger than 35 who served in the military jumped from 47 in 2006 to 66 in 2009 -- an increase of 40 percent."

As sobering as the statistics can be, there are some things we can do to help reduce the risk of losing an Airman, coworker, friend or family member to suicide.

The first thing I recommend is to maintain connections with each other and remain involved in one another's lives. Depression, substance abuse and emotional pain are indicators that can be observed when people know and observe one another. These can be signs of potential trouble, and getting an individual to talk about his or her situation often provides the release needed to turn around feelings about life.

Don't be afraid to refer people in trouble to trained professionals.

There may be no other profession which provides its members with so much help for dealing with life's problems than the U.S. military. Don't be afraid to refer anyone to the chaplain, Airman and family readiness center or mental health when you suspect there may be a need.

I also suggest continued efforts to educate and coach Airmen in life-disciplines that can prevent some key, unnecessary stressors. Disciplines like responsible financial management, educated parenting techniques and maintaining healthy relationships can actually prevent a person from making it to the breaking point in life when things seem to be spinning out of control.

Finally, never be afraid to ask people showing signs of trouble whether or not they want to harm themselves.

I know that making the decision to ask this question can be difficult, and asking it can feel awkward, but research has shown asking doesn't plant the idea in an individual's mind. It actually communicates concern and a connection that might stop the suicide from happening.

Perhaps asking that tough question could have prevented my very difficult talk with this bereaved father.

As we approached the father, he was mowing his grass. I almost had to stand in front of the riding mower before he noticed us. I'm sure the parent of an Airman, Soldier, Sailor or Marine dreads the day he or she makes eye contact with a solemn commander and chaplain in dress uniform in an unscheduled meeting at his or her home.

Today, this father elected to stay outside and lean against the mower while I informed him about his son's untimely death. Composed and shocked, the father asked us questions and told us he was aware of his son's troubled state of mind. He went on to tell us he always understood news of his son's death was possible, because of dangers associated with military service, "but it wasn't supposed to be like this."

It never is. It never should be.