Senior leader perspective on suicide

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Melvin Turner
  • 35th Force Support Squadron
What is it in us that seeks finality? As humans, life has many challenges and rewards. Too often the rewards seem few and the hardships plenty. For the military Airmen, those hardships are defined by personal issues and stressors from obligations to duty and country. I find myself asking, "How have our Airmen responded to these fluctuating changes in their lives?" Many successfully juggle their commitments and obligations with vigor and strength. However, a select few do not. They seek other means resulting in long-term suffering and unanswered questions for families and the Air Force.

The signs of suicidal thoughts are not always "picture perfect." In fact, the idea of another individual making an assumption of another with possible tendencies is met with slight resistance. Why is there a surge of sensitivity on the subject? I pondered that question several years ago as a staff sergeant after my younger brother claimed his own life. To this day, I doubt that there is one definitive answer.

Suicide is seen as the only resolution to a problem that cannot be resolved by another person. At least that is my perspective of it. Victims display no out of the ordinary signs before the act. Or do they? After my brother's death, I recapped on his final days and saw with trained eyes what I had missed before. In his final weeks he was happy and calm, as if all the burdens had fallen from his shoulders. I regarded it as a positive change. In fact, it was an incorrect assumption. He was celebrating "finality." The decision was made, the lethal method chosen and this display of excitement was meant as his final goodbye to family and friends.

As with my brother, how do we miss the opportunity to engage with our Airmen? Is it lack of training or involvement? Is it miscommunication or no communication at all? As a senior leader, I asked myself, "Am I approachable? Have I become to involved in daily commitments to notice the subtle changes in my Airmen?" The answer, for me, became clear. I needed to stray away from the "human eye perception."

What is the "human eye perception?" This simply means placing another one's action in a general category. Often, misinterpretations of behavioral changes go unchallenged, interpreting them as misconduct, negligence or dissatisfaction with family, work duties or personal commitments. Often, the victim feels alienated and misunderstood, which aids to further depression and stronger suicidal thoughts. Nonetheless, they remain careful not to display deteriorating behavioral patterns. The Air Force provides the training needed to become a watchful warrior. Yet, there is still a breakdown in what is considered abnormal behavior.

As with any Airman, I received training on suicide. I took notes and viewed it as a useful briefing. However, like many others, I made another incorrect assumption, "human immunity." This dreadful tragedy does not divide itself among services, gender, race or ethnic background. We all have something in common--stress. Stressors of life, family, finance, and duty contribute to depression, aggravation, medical problems and suicide. The fallacy that "It will never happen to me or someone I know," is incorrect. No longer can we assume that our rank or status immune us from suicide. Therefore, understanding that anyone can become a victim is a key ingredient in identifying Airmen in need of help.

Helping our fellow Airmen is becoming a family friend. A family friend is not someone necessarily closely connected rather an individual that watches over another during on-and off-peak times. A family friend is not spread just within our own squadrons but throughout the base, service, home and on deployments. We all must use the skills provided by the Air Force to act more quickly and decisively when behavioral patterns change. We must notice subtle changes and not look with "human eye perception." We must understand that no one is immune.

Lastly, as a senior leader, I would encourage everyone, regardless of rank, to push away from the duties of the day, if only for a few minutes. Talk to, sit down and chat with each other. Become a family friend and a watchful warrior. Don't let it take a personal tragedy to change your perspective on how to identify possible victims of suicide. One life lost is one too many. One suicide accomplished is one Airman's dying feeling that there was no way out. Suicide has its place, in the dictionary as a word to define an action. It should not be used as an action to achieve a result.