Life is precious

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Douglas Schiess
  • 4th Space Operations Squadron
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.

The tragedy

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. it is 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.

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 there 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 who knew the lieutenant well, I heard 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.

Be the wingman we talk about.

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.

Life is too valuable to worry about what people 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 leaders or supervisors.

Don't give in to the misconception that asking for help for yourself or another will hurt anyone's career. Suicide is the ultimate career ender.

Those left behind

I had 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.

They pleaded with me to develop programs in the Air Force 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 Air Force does have for members to seek help when life seems out of control. There are family life consultants, Airman and Family Readiness Center counselors, chaplains, and of course, mental health providers.

The family of this lieutenant was left with so many 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 members of the squadron. There were so many Airmen who were hurting: his flight members, the members of his former crew and friends he had known in his short Air Force time. They, like me, were asking: "What did I miss?". They weren't coming up with good answers. They missed their colleague, their friend and their brother-in-arms. The ultimate 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.

Keep on walking

As I looked at this lieutenant's life in hindsight, I was made aware of those stressors about which his friends knew. I can honestly say had I known about them, I would have ensured this lieutenant sought help.

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 and you can walk through anything if you are alive.