by Capt. Shannon Collins
8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (AFNS) – Thirty years ago, my father forever changed my life, as well as the lives of his other family members. He took a shotgun and shot himself in the head. His death certificate reads, “Self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people joke about something being so bad, “that I should just shoot myself.”
As I hear songs like “Butterfly Kisses” and “Daddy’s Hands,” as I watch a movie like “Father of the Bride,” that phrase, “self-inflicted gunshot wound,” echoes in my mind.
I’ll never have that special relationship between a father and a daughter. I won’t have anyone to walk me down the aisle or to celebrate Father’s Day with. And it isn’t because of a tragic automobile accident or a physical disease. It’s because of suicide.
The American Association of Suicidology’s Web site states that suicide ranks second as a cause of death among young Americans, age 18-24, behind accidents and homicides. It’s the 11th leading cause of death overall.
In 2008, the Air Force had 38 suicides, which equates to 11 suicides for every 100,000 Airmen. This matches the Air Force average for the past five years – since the beginning of OIF. Of those Air Force members who committed suicide in 2008, 95 percent were men and 89 percent were enlisted. Army officials reported 140 confirmed or suspected suicides in 2008, a rate of 20 per 100,000 Soldiers, twice the national average. Army experts attribute the increase in suicides to the frequency at which Soldiers deploy.
In March and April of this year, I worked at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office at Dover Air Force Base, Del. It’s the final stop for military menand women who die overseas, primarily those who sacrifice their lives for our freedom while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The remains are processed and sent home to loved ones for burial and last rites. I witnessed more than a few who came back, not because of an improvised explosive device or mortar attack, but from suicide.
My father served in the Air Force in the late 1960s as an enlisted aircraft maintainer here in South Korea. He served in a remote location during the Vietnam War and went into the war. His letters say he missed his family but that he was proud to serve. When he returned home from the war, he wasn’t quite the same. He had lost many friends and may have suffered survivor’s guilt, something many Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines face nowadays while serving back-to-back deployments. He was 30 when he shot himself. He was buried New Year’s Eve. His sister found his body.
Those who consider suicide need to remember the family members they leave behind, the ripple effect they have on the lives around them. The AAS Web site states that the survivors of suicide, the family members or friends of people who have committed suicide, represent “the largest mental health casualties related to suicide.” For every suicide, the Web site states that there are at least six survivors. Based on this estimate, approximately five million Americans became survivors of suicide in the past 25 years.
“Suicide, being such a low frequency event, is extremely difficult to predict,” said Dr. (Maj.) Leigh Johnson, a psychologist and flight commander for the Kunsan Air Base Mental Health Clinic.
“More than 90 percent of all people will think about suicide at some point in their lives, but very few will actually complete suicide,” she said. “Suicide prevention is an area where the Wingman concept really is critical. Co-workers and peers, who see each other day in, day out, are truly those who are best positioned to identify when someone is struggling, when his or her behavior has changed. Having the courage to reach out to another Airman who is having a difficult time is the first and most critical step toward suicide prevention.”
Each military base offers a range of support agencies with people to help, such as mental health clinic professionals, the chaplain staff, the sexual assault response coordinator, and the military family and life consultant.
“We have a range of helping agencies on base available to Airmen but these agencies are powerless to help until someone self-identifies or is brought in for help,” Major Johnson said. “It really comes down to looking out for each other and having the courage to access one of the support agencies if you’re struggling.”
Major Johnson is well aware of the stigma that is associated with the use of mental health services among military personnel.
“The reality is that 95 percent of the time, if an active-duty member comes to the mental health clinic of his or her own accord, there is zero career impact,” she said. “We’d prefer that people use the resources available to them rather than allowing things to snowball. It’s when things snowball that they start to spill into work performance, and that’s when visits to mental health translate into duty restrictions.”
She also said that coming to the mental health clinic doesn’t mean that an individual is “crazy” or “broken.”
“The Air Force recruitment system filters out those who have significant mental health disorders,” Major Johnson said. “So, the majority of what we deal with are problems in life that many of us face and can use help with from time to time: mild depression or anxiety, difficulties at work, marital problems. We know that it takes courage for people to walk through our doors; it’s hard to admit when we’re struggling and to reach out for help.”
My father struggled for years over the effects of war, over family trials and tribulations. The family jury is out on why my father did what he did. We always will wonder. Photos and memories of him from others, his dog tags, a medal – these will be all I ever have of him.
My sister, brother and I never really will know who our father was or what he could have been. No matter how overwhelming a situation can be, whether it is financial difficulties, receiving punishment in the military or personal life’s twists and turns, people who consider suicide as the only way out should think of their parents, of the family and friends who may be far away but who care for them. Chaplains, mental health representatives, co-workers and supervisors are there to listen.
For more suicide statistics, visit the AAS at www.suicidology.org or the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program Web site at http://afspp.afms.mil. Visit www.survivorsofsuicide.com for more survivors of suicide information or to join a support group.
For immediate help, call a base chaplain or a staff member in the mental health office.