NCO's grief helps a young Airman

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Steven Armitage
  • 366th Medical Group
Looking down the road, 20 years seems almost as long as forever. Looking back, 20 years seems to have gone by in an instant. Twenty years ago Ronald Reagan was president; 20 years ago we still lived in the 80s; 20 years ago nobody had even heard of Kanye West. But, that's how long my older brother, Greg has been gone. You see, Greg committed suicide in 1988.

Greg was 21 years old when he died; I was 16. Greg was stationed at NAS Rota, Spain, and was alone for the first time in his life. He wasn't into drugs and didn't hang out with the wrong crowd. He was a good kid who was homesick. I think the overseas separation was just too much for him.

As the years passed, I learned to deal with Greg's death little by little. I learned that no matter how alone somebody may feel, somebody will always mourn their passing. Sometimes people don't know how to appreciate others while they have them in their lives, it's only once they've left that they realize they're really gone. I imagine Greg didn't think much about how his death would affect his family, let alone anybody else; he was too immerged in his own pain.

My mom and dad are completely different people since Greg's death. They've lost that spark, that enthusiasm for life they use to have. They mourn for him every day. Sometimes it's hard for them with me living so far away because I'm all they have left, and I know they miss me too.

I know I'm different as well. After Greg died, I stopped making new friends because eventually the question, "do you have any brothers or sisters" always came up. I didn't know how to answer that. It was painful to tell people my brother died and especially hard for me to say he committed suicide because my friends didn't know how to react to that information. And, if I said I didn't have a brother, I felt like Judas denying Jesus. So, I just stopped making new friends.

For years I use to dream we were fighting like we did as kids. In my dreams, I knew he was gone, but I continued fighting with him. It wasn't until my last duty assignment as a military training leader that I began opening up and facing my feelings.

One of the briefings I gave to the new technical school Airmen was on suicide awareness. I used to just brief the slides and move on because that's all I felt comfortable doing. Eventually I became more comfortable with opening up and I would talk about Greg and how his death affected me. I always ended by telling the Airmen they could contact me at any hour of the day or night and I'd always make time to talk to them.

One night an Airman named Zach took me up on that offer. The moment he came into my office, I knew he was in trouble. I was about to leave for the night when he knocked and asked if he could talk to me. Without beating around the bush, he told me in full detail how he planned on killing himself. I was surprised to hear how much thought he put into it. It didn't take any special training to see this young man was in pain and was asking for help.

I handled everything by the book though, just like I had done numerous times before. I contacted my first sergeant, who in-turn contacted the chief MTL, commander and on-call Mental Health provider. There were no immediate rooms available in the hospital downtown, but there would be one for him the next day. As long as Zack could sit tight, he would be admitted in the morning.

I'd dealt with plenty of Airmen who were sad for one reason or another; they were away from home for the first time, they got an assignment they didn't like or they were having relationship problems. It wasn't difficult to see that these were simply cases of Airmen being sad, not suicidal, but Zack was completely different.

As I listened to Zack, I thought about my brother. I wondered if he asked for help. I wondered if his friends or co-workers noticed a difference in him. I also thought about Zack's mom and how worried she must be for her son.

At that time, my only option was to have Zack stay in the dorm that night and have an Airman wake him up hourly to ensure he was still alive. We've put Airmen on suicide watch in the past, but I didn't feel any of those Airmen were really suicidal. Putting Zack on suicide watch meant he would get very little sleep or privacy and ultimately, his situation would spread through the dorm and that might potentially push him over the edge. I also didn't feel comfortable placing that kind of responsibility on an inexperienced Airman. That's when I decided to take Zack to my house. I broke a sacred MTL rule by inviting a tech school Airman to my house.

My mom was visiting us from San Antonio so I called and explained the situation as I knew this would be an emotional ordeal for her. When we arrived at my house, my mom met us at the front door. I watched as Zack hugged my mom like I hadn't hugged her in years. They both cried. They went inside and talked for quite a while. My wife and I stayed outside. I called his mother and tried to assure her that I wouldn't let anything happen to him. A couple of hours later, Zack came outside and we talked. He said he felt a little better and that he would be okay if I took him back to the dorm for the night. Zack promised to call me if he needed anything. The next day I picked him up from the dorm and drove him to the hospital downtown.

I knew I had broken the rules, but I tried to look at the bigger picture. What if I didn't do everything I could to help Zack and he ended up committing suicide? Would my conscience allow that? How would I rationalize that I had an opportunity to help him, but decided not to because I was afraid of breaking a rule? Zack's life was more important than the AFI and I was ready to face the consequences of my actions. Thankfully my commander agreed with me, but warned me not to do it again.

Three years had passed since I last saw Zack. I was surfing the internet this past summer and decided to Google him. To my surprise, his name popped up on a college roster. I e-mailed him at his college address and a week later we were e-mailing back and forth. He updated me on everything and assured me that he was fine.

Before ending our conversation, Zack told me something a little unsettling. He said after I talked to his in-processing group that morning, he felt that I was sincere, so he decided to talk to me. He said he had every intention of killing himself that night if our conversation didn't go well. I think Zack was telling me, "thank you" without having to say it. I simply responded, "I know." I think that was my way of saying, "You're welcome." I doubt I'll hear from Zack again, but I'm happy to know he's okay.

I still miss my older brother though and I think about him every day. I named my son Ryan Gregory as a way to honor his life and keep his memory alive. It's amazing to me that I've lived more than half my life without him. He would have retired from the Navy this past summer. Looking back, time has gone by so fast since he's been gone, it seems like a blur sometimes.

I do have some comfort though. It makes me feel good to know that his death hasn't been in vain. Because of Greg, I was able to help Zack when he needed it. Because of Zack, I was finally able to acknowledge my own grief and put it behind me. And, I know that if Zack is in the same situation as me, he'll be able to help that person, just like I did for him.