By Senior Airman Regina Edwards
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Editor’s note: Some names in this article have been changed to respect the privacy of the individuals mentioned.
It’s something military members hear all too often. “Be a wingman.” “Step up.” “Do the right thing in the wrong situation.”
But when we are faced with that all-or-nothing chance to do so, how many are brave enough to answer the call?
Senior Airman Derrick Dotta, 314th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron dual rails specialist, was faced with this decision from the outside of a locked closet door when he stopped his friend’s suicide attempt.
“Oct. 10, 2014, my wife and I went to Sam’s house to barbecue with him, his son and girlfriend, Amber,” said Dotta. “When we arrived, we could tell Sam had been drinking, but he seemed fine. After dinner, he got up to put his son to bed. But when he appeared from his son’s room, instantaneously, he seemed distraught.”
Sam began to display behavior that immediately caused concern for Dotta and the other adults present.
Sam entered the kitchen and slammed the refrigerator door before heading back to his son’s room, and this time Amber followed behind him. After a few moments she returned to the table, but Sam went into his bedroom in silence.
“His girlfriend came from his son’s room and said, ‘Sam told his son he was never going to see him again, how much he loved and meant to him,’” said Dotta. “We went to Sam’s room to find out what he was talking about and make sure he was okay. When we went into his room his bathroom door was locked. After knocking on the door and him not responding, we heard the sound of what appeared to be a gun slide.”
Dotta instructed his wife and Amber to leave the room, go outside and see if anyone could help. They found some neighbors across the street and instructed them to call 911. While trying to get Sam to open the door, Dotta heard 2-3 gun shots, which he later found out where from a small caliber rifle.
“Once I heard the gun fire, I immediately kicked open the bathroom door expecting the worst” he said. “Then I heard him in his walk-in closet, where he had previously put a lock on the door because that is where he kept all his guns. I saw a pair of toe nail clippers on the counter and used that to open the door.”
When Dotta found Sam, he was sitting on the floor loading a shotgun. He tried talking to him, but Sam didn’t initially respond.
“He finally began to talk about how his father died by suicide and his friends died while deployed. He said there was no point for him to be here, and he didn’t have a family anymore. I told him his son needed him, and if he did what he was thinking of doing, his son would be just as upset as he was.”
Dotta continued talking to him in hopes of de-escalating the situation and raising Sam’s awareness for reasons to live. He asked Sam to hand over the gun so they could go to the bedroom and talk. He said Sam hesitated for a while, but eventually gave Dotta the gun.
Moments later, the police arrived along with paramedics. Sam was taken to the hospital where he was evaluated and treated.
Looking back, Dotta said he now realizes the risks associated with intervening in that moment, but the possible outcome of not stepping up would have been more devastating.
“Although it was a risky situation, he was my friend,” he said. “I didn’t want to see him hurt himself. He has a young child that I know needs him.”
Little Rock Air Force Base along with the Air Force have undertaken several initiatives to improve resilience, encourage help-seeking, improve identification of Airman at risk for suicide, pinpoint self-destructive behaviors and involve everyone in reducing and preventing suicide.
Commanders’ calls, face-to-face supervision discussions, as well as squadron briefings, are all tools used to raise awareness for the risk of suicide, enforce the seriousness of suicide, encourage Airmen to seek help, challenge wingmen to intervene, and ultimately reduce the risk and occurrence of suicide. The same message is delivered in several avenues to ensure Airmen know they are not alone, but when faced with a suicidal situation, the information is embedded in the Airmen and they remember how to respond.
“In all honesty, one of the most memorable briefings I’ve had about suicide prevention is from computer based training,” he said. “Most Airmen dread CBTs, but it should be taken seriously. You never know who is being affected by depression or other related issues, and you could put your knowledge learned into action to help.”
Today, Dotta said Sam is seeking counseling and doing much better coping with his issues.
All wingmen have two key responsibilities. The first is to keep themselves physically and mentally fit to perform the mission and seeking professional help, when necessary to efficiently get the job done. The second is to identify the early warning signs in the Airmen around them and intervene to ensure others seek help when needed.
“As members of the military we have higher chances of knowing someone being affected by depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Dotta. “Don’t think you won’t ever know anyone that might be having trouble. Learn to recognize the signs, and take any training received on the subject seriously as it could save someone’s life someday.”
If you or someone you know is hurting, mentally or physically, there are several helpful resources: you can make an appointment with the Mental Health Clinic at (501) 987-7338, a Military and Family Life Consultant (501) 366-7703, Military One Source (800) 342-9647, your PCM (501) 987-8811, someone in your chain of command or call the Military Crisis Line, toll-free at (800) 273-TALK (273-8255). It is available 24/7 and can be used anywhere in the United States and connects callers to a certified crisis center near where the call is placed. More information can be found at their website, http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/.