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A Wake Up Call

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- Editor's note: Names and details were slightly changed in this article to protect privacy. However, the story and the author's reflections are true.

My BlackBerry went off like a siren in the mist.  Coming to my senses from a deep sleep, sometime after midnight, I picked it up and saw my first sergeant's name on the screen.  "Sir?" His voice was grave and serious; my heart started to race.  "Sir, I'm down here at the hospital with Airman Downs. He tried to kill himself just after midnight, almost did it."

My mind reeled as I leapt out of bed.  Airman Downs?  Over the past couple days I had met several hundred people, having just taken command of my squadron.  I sifted through new faces and names, trying to remember anyone who was withdrawn, detached or depressed-looking.

Then, the fog cleared.   Airman Downs--wait, yes, yes--he and I had talked at the track, earlier in the day.  Wait, was that Airman Downs?  We had talked about 20 minutes; he'd asked about my last job, my kids, my thoughts about my new assignment, my ideas about being a commander.

Wait, really?  Now I was wide awake.  Airman Downs was in the hospital; tried to kill himself?  It just didn't make sense.  Then more thoughts:  hold on, right, I'm a psychologist--ugh, UGH--how was I fooled?

How had I failed to see this coming with all my training and experience?

Worse, I hadn't had even the slightest concern about this young Airman; in fact, just the opposite, I'd been impressed by his outgoing, mature and articulate personality.

I had learned his name, his hometown and his favorite sports teams.  I had walked away from the conversation proud of my Airmen and proud of being a squadron commander.

At the hospital, I learned more about Airman Downs.  Yes, it really was him, who so impressed me at the track.

The facts came out:
· This Airman had left a child at home when he enlisted. He was missing home terribly.
· Now in the Air Force a little over a year, he was in a new relationship that wasn't working out. He was disappointed and angry with his girlfriend.
· He was trying to get help, but so far nothing was working.
· He was struggling to meet the demands of a busy job.

He was working hard to keep up at work and his supervisor was actively engaged, knowing the pressures.  But Airman Downs felt he was failing as a father and a coworker.

Why hadn't I seen all this?  After all, I'd talked to hundreds of struggling people in the clinic over the years.

How could I miss it?  He had been inquisitive (and a good listener) and I had enjoyed our conversation.

But the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit it--I had left the track that afternoon knowing almost nothing of significance about Airman Downs.  I was simply too willing to keep the focus on me; he had probably sensed my pride in being a commander.  Yes, I had to admit, I had been self-absorbed, had focused on me and had not learned much about him.

In simple terms, suicides happen because people have lost hope in themselves, in the world around them and in their own futures.  The remedy for all this can be complicated, but it almost always has something to do with renewed hope, with a stronger sense of community and with a fresh sense that reaching positive goals is possible.

For most of us, hope is strengthened when we know that others care genuinely about our life experiences.  Hope is built when Airmen can share both the ups and the downs of serving in the Air Force.

Since that call in the middle of the night, I've often reflected on my interactions with Airman Downs.

Most importantly, he survived the suicide attempt and was out of the hospital in a few days.  He got the help he needed and the unit rallied around him--he got through it.

But, just as important, the experience has reminded me to be intentional about keeping the focus off myself, and instead, to keep it on my fellow Airmen.  I need to truly hear from them, to listen to them carefully, to ask meaningful questions about their lives and, when I have concerns, to follow up.

To stop suicides, we need a wakeup call, not necessarily from the first sergeant, but instead a reminder that listening and knowing our Airmen is a top priority--every Airman has a story to tell!