by Wayne Crenshaw
78th Air Base WWing Public Affairs
ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — On May 3, 2010, Joie Gates’ boss entered her office and abruptly ordered a co-worker she was chatting with to leave with him.
Three uniformed Air Force officers then entered the room, and Gates knew she was about to get some bad news.
They told her that her only child, Airman Austin Gates-Benson, had died in Afghanistan of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. To hear the news he was dead was shocking enough, but to learn he had committed suicide left her in disbelief.
“I pulled the bottom of my shirt up over my head, wanting desperately to hide from his words, wanting to disappear,” she said.
She and Fred Boenig, Gates-Benson’s father, traveled here from Pennsylvania to share their experiences with their son’s death to about 500 Airmen at the Base Theater Tuesday. Most of the Airmen were members of the 5th Combat Communications Group, the parent organization of the unit to which Gates-Benson was assigned.
In a voice often shaky but never halting, Joie Gates urged the Airmen to consider the impact suicide has on others and seek help when they need it.
“May 3, 2010, is the day that life as I knew it came forever to an end,” she said. “Living it first hand is an endless ride of pain and confusion. There are no answers to my questions. There is no day you wake up and return to the way things were before your child dies by suicide.”
Much has been said at Robins Air Force Base in the past couple of years about recognizing the warning signs of suicide, but by all accounts, Gates-Benson displayed none of those.
He smiled so commonly that one fellow Airman compared him to a game-show host, said Lt. Col. Donald Cournoyer, commander of the 54th Combat Communications Squadron.
He said Gates-Benson was an outstanding Airman who worked hard, showed initiative, and was thrilled to learn he was deploying to work with special operations troops.
“Throughout all of this, he never let anyone see anything other than that smile and that ‘git-r-done’ attitude,” Cournoyer said. “He didn’t open up to anyone.”
Fred Boenig, a morning radio host, went on the air the very next day after he got the news. For two weeks, he choked back tears as he gave weather and traffic reports, and he talked about his son’s death. His show became a lightning rod for people who had been impacted by suicide.
He recently mentioned on his show he was going to Robins to talk to 500 Airmen.
“In that room, statistically there’s one person who is going to die from suicide, and I don’t know who that person is,” he recalled telling his radio audience, “because if I did, I would go over to that person and say ‘Talk to someone.’”
Joie Gates admitted she knew little about suicide on the day she got the news, but she went home that night and started reading about the problem, particularly the high rate among those in uniform. Three days later, she penned a letter to President Obama asking him to address the problem of suicides in the military.
“I will gather the greater forces of love and create a whirlwind to bring what is hidden to life,” she wrote in the letter.
Gates’ and Boenig’s message is also going beyond their talk here. Their talk was videotaped and will be used by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy next week during his presentation at the Air Force Association’s Winter Symposium in Orlando.
Cournoyer ended the event by urging all Airmen in attendance to seek help if they need it.
“If you are considering suicide, reach out to someone. There are a lot of people who are there to listen and help you out, no matter what the problem is. It’s the fight of your life,” he said.
Editor’s note: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 800-273-8255.