Commentary by Lt. Col. Douglas Schiess
4th Space Operations Squadron commander
Two weeks ago I began a journey leading the 4th Space Operations Squadron through a tragedy. This was not something I ever wanted to do, but there were many lessons learned for me, our squadron, and, I hope, for all of you reading this commentary.
On July 19, I was informed that one of my squadron members had died and that it appeared to be a suicide. This notification started a process for my squadron that will continue for months. A process of grieving, of honoring our friend and fellow Airman’s life, of taking care of the Airman’s family, of ensuring his estate was taken care of, and lastly asking a lot of “why” questions. I hope after you read this commentary that you walk away with the knowledge that life is incredibly precious and suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems.
Unfortunately, I was off station when I was notified of the suicide and had to travel back. However, that travel time allowed me time to think about what I had missed in this lieutenant’s life. Were their stressors that we overlooked? Were there things going on that we brushed aside? This was a tough internal battle in my mind, because this lieutenant was an outstanding performer. He was doing all the right things to excel as an Air Force officer and as a space operator. As I began to talk to others in the squadron that knew the lieutenant well, I did hear about some stressors in his life that hadn’t been brought up to leadership. I also heard some say they knew he was struggling in some areas of life, but they never thought he would do something like this. There was a theme that some of the closest people to him knew he was having problems, but none of them put any of these together to equal that he might be overwhelmed.
One lesson that I learned from this experience is that we need to take care of each other – be the wingman that we talk about. I think some of his friends were concerned that he would be angry with them if they talked to him about his stressors or they were afraid he would get in trouble if they told supervisors. Again, none of them thought he would do anything to hurt himself, so none of them pushed him to seek help or told supervisors that he might need help.
Be the wingman – life is too valuable to worry about what the person will think because you ask them if they need help. At the very least, make sure you talk to someone about this and let an outsider give you advice on whether you need to speak up to leadership.
I did have the honor of greeting this lieutenant’s parents at the airport and spent two days with them as we walked through the necessary paperwork and conducted a memorial service. In a conversation with the lieutenant’s family they pleaded with me to develop programs in the AF for members to seek help without affecting their careers. I had to swallow the lump in my throat and tell the family members about all the programs the AF does have for members to seek help when life seems out of control. I discussed with them the ability to see the Military Family Life Consultant, the airman and family readiness center counselors, the chaplains, and of course even the mental health providers.
I started to wonder if we weren’t getting the message out to our Airmen, but then remembered all the base bulletins with this information, the CC calls where the MFLC, A&FRC and Chaplains briefed about these programs. I remembered the suicide training we received and how it discusses the avenues for help. I began to believe that our Airmen don’t believe it is true. With any death in the Air Force, leadership and the Office of Special Investigation reviews the member’s life, specifically the last few days. As I looked at this lieutenant’s life in hindsight I was made aware of those stressors his friends knew about. I can honestly say had I known about them I would have ensured this lieutenant sought help. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be anything in his life that would have caused him to be in trouble or affected his career. However, even if there was something in his life that would have required administrative or disciplinary action, I wish I was doing that instead of him being gone.
Life is incredibly valuable – there is nothing else worth more. I remember what it was like to be a lieutenant and wonder if something was going to affect my career or not. The lesson learned here is your life is more valuable than your career – you can walk through anything if you are alive. If you take your own life, than we can’t work together through your problems. All of us will someday take off our uniforms and transition to another period in our lives. No matter what is going on in your situation, remember that you can get through it and there are people and agencies here to help.
Lastly, I learned how much hurt there is after a suicide. The family of this lieutenant was left with so many “why” questions. At our squadron memorial, the father spoke to many members from our base. After he talked of how proud he was and how much he loved his son, he pleaded with everyone in attendance to never let this happen again. He begged the Air Force members to seek help. He said how he now knew of all the organizations available to help and wished his son had sought them out. He was hurting so much and wished he could help his son now. This sentiment wasn’t only shared by the family, but also the squadron. There were so many Airmen that were hurting; his flight members, the members of his former crew, and friends that he had known in his short Air Force time. They, like me, were asking, “What did I miss?”, “How could I have helped him more?” and “Why would he resort to this?” They weren’t coming up with good answers. They missed their colleague, their friend, and their brother-in-arms. The final lesson learned is that suicide hurts the ones you leave behind; they are left with a hole in their lives that only you could have filled.
In conclusion, I ask that if you are feeling overwhelmed, if you are depressed, if you just feel like you can’t take it anymore that you will seek help from someone – the Chaplain, MFLC, the Mental Health clinic, your friends, anyone. Don’t give in to the misconception that it will hurt your career – suicide is the ultimate career ender. For the wingman with friends going through rough times, please talk to them. Not everyone is going to commit suicide because times are hard, but you have to ask the tough questions to see where they are. If it appears they are overwhelmed – help them look to the helping agencies, and in a last resort ask someone else to help. It is the least we can do as wingmen to make sure someone is going to be ok. If we don’t then we could lose another Airman, and family and friends will be hurting again. I truly miss my squadron mate and I can only hope this situation will help another Airman to make the right decision because life is precious.