By Staff Sgt. Emily Kenney
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Monday was a biting Colorado day – it was the type of cold that restricts breathing; the type of cold that knocks the wind out of you.
The frigid air was made worse by piercing winds roaring out of the South. Voluminous, gloomy clouds formed on the horizon.
The date was April 21, 2008.
Kristen Christy was at her home in Colorado Springs when she heard her doorbell ring.
On her porch stood the chaplain and the coroner.
Then she received the news: her husband of 17 years, Lt. Col. Don Christy, had taken his life at Black Forest Regional Park.
The news shattered Kristen and her two sons, Ryan and Ben, who were 14 and 12 at the time.
“Life is a brutal teacher,” Kristen said. “You get the pop quiz first, then you learn the lesson.”
For years to come, Kristen, Ryan and Ben mourned the loss of Don. Eight years after his father’s death, on Ben’s 20th birthday, he called his mom and left her a tear-filled message.
He sobbed, “I miss dad so much. I can’t live without him – I can’t. I need him so much. I’ve been in mourning eight years of my life. I’m not OK right now. I really need help.”
Kristen’s other son, Ryan, also struggled with his father’s death. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began self-medicating when he was only 16 years old.
When speaking about her late husband’s suicide, Kristen said, “The choice that he made has had rippling effects he had no idea would be caused. Our older son turns 25 in May. He was 14 when Don died. At 16 he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I think if he had those years to mature, life would be different for him – he would not have self-medicated with meth or heroin.”
Ryan was sober for three years before disappearing on his own accord. September 20, 2015 was the last time Kristen saw or spoke to Ryan.
At Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado’s March 30 Storyteller’s Conference, Kristen shared her stories of trial and triumph.
She mentioned a Columbia University study that concluded suicides are contagious, noting suicide rates increased 10 percent for months after actor and comedian Robin Williams’ death.
Conversely, she named something else that was contagious: smiles.
“Smiles are contagious,” she said. “The average person has 44 people within their sphere of influence. I want you to remember that as you make choices in your career and in your life. We have a choice of how we react. If you can help one person, you aren’t just helping one person – you’re helping 45. You can’t solve people’s problems, but if you notice and you go up to them and give them a hug, a handshake or a smile it can mean the world.”
Kristen later married Tech. Sgt. Sean Lange and has since been integral in the Air Force community to Airmen who’ve endured tragedies.
On Feb. 23, Kristen was named Air Force Spouse of the Year for 2018.
Kristen said she is honored to represent the Air Force family and lucky to serve as a military spouse. Additionally, she said the Air Force family has helped her through many of the hardships she has withstood.
“Our Air Force is our family,” she said. “They’re our safety net. There are times when I need a piggyback ride. I need to put my arms around someone, and I need them to help me. Sometimes I need two people. You can either go at it alone, or you can go at it with friends. I really recommend the friend route.”
Kristen explained how there are many days and months throughout the year that recognize various diseases and ailments, but there’s one that’s missing: survivor’s day.
“We are all survivors of something,” she said. “Lost job, broken heart, death, illness – you name it. You’re a survivor.”
She has been working with the local community, the city council, the county commissioner and the state of Colorado to make March 4 National Survivor’s Day. She is also trying to work with the White House to make it an Executive Order.
“No matter what the obstacle, we put one foot in front of the other and ‘March fourth’ and conquer,” she said. “But it’s not just one day. I have decided that every day of my life is March 4. That has given me and my family hope.”
With a smile she said, “I just have to remember when I write a check not to write March 4.”