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My personal dedication to suicide prevention

My personal dedication to suicide prevention in text

September is Suicide Prevention Month, a time for Americans to build awareness and help understand suicide in our culture. More than 40,000 Americans lose their life due to suicide each year and research shows that rates in the military and the general population are very close. Strengthening the connections you have in your life, with friends, family, coworkers and wingmen, helps build resiliency and guards against suicidal thoughts and behaviors. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Tech. Sgt. Andrea Salazar)

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --

My journey with suicide began at a very young age. I must have been around age 10 when my parents sat me down and told me that my grandfather had killed himself. At this point, I had already lost all but one grandparent, and while death was real to me, it meant looking at a casket (because my parents would not let me look at the body) and the casket in turn being buried. No one showed emotion, no grieving from what I can remember, it was an event and we moved on. As I discovered later in life, suicide in my family is something that happens and no one talks about it.

When I asked my father why, I was told the story of how my grandfather was the caretaker of his sister, a great aunt I never knew, who was dying of cancer … watching cancer rotting away at her, and how he had to consistently change her sheets and clean her up and the horrible pain that she was in. Back in those days, we did not have the medical care for such patients in small rural America. You were sent home to die; no hospice, no medical care, just family watching you die.

As my father laid out the story, he related it to my grandfather, who was told by his small town country doctor that he had cancer. Fearing what he had to face, he chose to take his own life instead of putting someone through the suffering of having to take care of him as he was dying a horrible death. It made sense to my young mind; die with dignity, don’t be a burden and ease your suffering. Years later in my doctoral studies, my ethics instructor gave me the assignment of presenting on the topic of suicide, and the question was “are there valid reasons for suicide?”

Oddly enough, the author of the book had reinforced the reasons for my grandfather’s suicide, while giving compelling arguments against. My challenge now became a conflict deep within me, with my religious beliefs that I had to help Soldiers and family members deal with life-and-death issues while wrestling with my childhood embedded beliefs.

It was not until many years later that suicide started having a larger impact on my life. At one particular point while I was in seminary, I had a brother-in-law take his own life without any signs or warning. Being retired Air Force who received all of those briefings, he knew how to hide the signs. He meticulously planned every detail. He left detailed instructions for his wife: whom to contact for the life insurance, survivor’s benefits, etc., down to the smallest detail, with one exception – why?

To this day we have our suspicions, but we will never know. For me it hit hard. He knew I was working to become a chaplain, that I was trained to deal with life-and-death issues and that he could have come to me in confidence … We could have worked this out! I struggled with why he kept it to himself and did not reach out. After all, we were family! Unlike the coffins in the past, this was a real body as I walked into the room with my sister-in-law; the funeral home did the best that they could, but there is no hiding a gunshot to the head. It left a lasting memory of many of Soldiers lost on the battlefield and in life.

It was at that point I made it my mission that once I became a chaplain that no one was going to die on my watch. For 14 years I served as an Army chaplain, and I am very proud of the fact that I never lost one service member or family member to suicide.

The Army afforded me the best training that I could get: two clinical rotations with Menninger Clinic, training on just about every suicide prevention model, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of challenging times, lots of tears and emotions as I sat with individuals and saw their pain. Soldiers and their families were suicidal and there were even a few serious attempts along the way, but by the grace of God, somebody got there in time. Many were put into the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit (IPU)and got immediate help; others were sent off to residency programs while the majority got the counseling that they needed. Most returned to active duty and are still serving or retired. I carry those painful stories with me. It drives me every day to make sure no one is suffering in silence; no one has to think about taking their life.

While I am proud of my service and commitment to life, there is one person whom I could not help, and that painfully haunts me. Somewhere along the line in my time on active duty, my younger brother had a serious accident, and the doctor was concerned for his well-being so he put him in the IPU. It was while my brother was in the IPU that he met a beautiful young lady who was also on suicide watch. Why was she in the IPU on this particular occasion? She did not like the perm she received and tried to kill herself. You would think to yourself, “run away, far away,” but my brother fell in love and married this young lady who, as we discovered, had some very serious mental conditions that required meds, therapy and, in some cases, 24/7 care.   

They had a child, ended up getting a divorce and life just kept spiraling down for her. She could not hold a job, she lost all rights to see her son and eventually ended up homeless, living off of the kindness of strangers after her own family – mother and brothers – had abandoned her. Over the many years that I knew her, I got what seemed like thousands of calls, emails, IMs, etc. I would talk with her for hours, pleading with her to go get help. My hands were tied, most of the time I was too far away to be able to do anything. She would refuse medical care, just believing that God would heal her. Calling 911 was eventually a waste of time because the local law enforcement, judges, etc., just got tired of dealing with her consistently not following medical advice or refusing medical treatment. She was a burden on the system, even using my trump card as an active duty Army hospital chaplain no longer carried any weight. Law enforcement would show up and do a quick check and would leave. It was frustrating for all of us who were trying to help her.

Then one night while I was in Korea, now working as a civilian, my phone kept ringing off the hook. I just turned it off and went back to sleep. I just could not be bothered with her story and constantly pleading for God to help her. It had been over a year since I last heard from her. She was divorced and in my mind, no longer family because I thought she had moved back in with her mother and her family was now her caretaker.

We just got through with a week-long exercise in the hospital; I was tired and did not want to stay up all night listening to the same story over and over again. I was tired of pleading with her for many years to take her meds and go get help. I had no idea where she lived, if she had a job or what her status was. I had really hoped that after the divorce, she had moved on and she was just having one of her episodes and would give up and find someone else to cry to. I think we all felt like victims having to deal with her.

Little did I know, this time she really needed someone. I suspect that at this point in her life she had burned down all of the bridges and had nowhere to go. The next morning, I had a long text message and then I discovered that she went out and killed herself the next day.

I was devastated. I was sad for her son, so young and now without a mom. Part of me was feeling really guilty and relieved at the same time; her suffering was finally over, the mental anguish that she lived with since puberty had finally ended. I also felt the guilt for ignoring her for the one time when I just did not feel like dealing with it, my emotions were overwhelming. I don’t know if I could have made a difference being halfway around the world. I knew that it was a matter of time – not if she ever was going to kill herself, but when – and her nightmare was now over, leaving behind a tsunami of emotions that we all had to deal with.

I was grateful that both of my parents had already passed from cancer and, I suspect, from an overdose of morphine that is readily available. My father, who was her largest supporter, passed the month before and even on his death bed, she was begging for his financial support. He was her last resource, and I should have seen that red flag, but I was too busy dealing with his death and the aftermath while living overseas.

I keep her message on my phone and read it on occasion to remind me that as painful as it may be, we owe it to each other to be there when there is a cry for help, no matter how tired we are or how many times we have to step in, because the one time we don’t may be the moment that haunts us for the rest of our lives.