By Maj. Karry Gladden, Air Force Network Integration Center
/ Published March 18, 2011
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- I recently celebrated two important anniversaries. On Jan. 30, 2010, I decided when and how I was going to end my life. The night before, I went to bed and slept for two hours, as I had for the previous nine or so months. Once I was sure my wife was asleep, I got out my laptop and researched how long it would take to bleed out from a femoral artery injury. This bit of information helped me narrow down the when and how. It also took away the last stumbling block. It had to look like an accident, primarily to ensure my sweetheart didn't spend the rest of her life wondering why I committed suicide or blamed herself.
It is important to know that I got to the brink of suicide the same way most people do -- a series of stressors in my life built up until they simply got the better of me. To make matters worse I had chronic back pain, which had been increasing since an injury a year ago, resulted in less and less exercise -- an important way to relieve stress. And although I made sure members of my family received counseling for the major life events we were all facing, I just "manned up." Through it all, I continued my duties as a flight commander at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and later, as an executive officer at Scott Air Force Base.
Here are signs I ignored:
- On the way home from work one day, a truck veered into my lane. I made no effort to move and was disappointed when it didn't hit me.
- I was sleeping less and less, lying awake with racing thoughts, only falling asleep when exhausted.
- I wasn't eating. Ironically though, I gained a lot of weight.
- I went through the motions of life; I went to work because I had a responsibility to my family and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Jan. 31, 2010, is the other anniversary, the day I decided to live. It was a Sunday morning. During church I realized that normal people do not stay awake at night researching how to die. At home, I took my wife aside and told her everything. I also asked her to remove our firearms from the house, not to leave me alone and take me to the emergency room or mental health first thing in the morning. Just telling that one person, the most important person in my life, paid big dividends. She didn't look at me like I'd sprouted another head; she was upset that she hadn't noticed and that I couldn't tell her. It wasn't that I couldn't tell her, I didn't want to add to her stress.
I felt better. I got up Monday morning and decided that just telling my wife was enough. I put my blues on and told her everything was going to be okay. I didn't need to go see anyone. She gave me the option of going willingly or in the back of an ambulance.
We went to mental health and I chose to admit myself. I would have been admitted either way, but believe me, self-admission is the way to go. The mental health staff was very professional and sympathetic. A very knowledgeable senior airman spoke with my wife and me and started the admission process. A civilian provider made arrangements with a local hospital for care.
Once at the hospital I realized that I had never been so embarrassed or ashamed in my life. "How did I get here?" "What will everyone think?" I tried to figure out what I would tell everyone when I got out. I quickly learned a few life lessons:
- There are others there just like me, not just with the same experiences, but other Airmen.
- Sleep is a wonderful and restorative thing.
- No one, my commander included, saw me as weak or "crazy." He was very supportive. He even called me -- in the hospital -- to congratulate me on my selection to major. I learned I had been selected for promotion from a call on a stainless steel phone with a cord too short to be used as a noose.
- Military personnel stay an average of four days longer than our civilian counterparts. Why the disparity? Probably because we have a tendency to "suck it up and move on," going back to the same environment at an increased risk of relapse.
After five or six days I realized in horror that I had successfully hidden this from everyone, including my sweetheart of 19 years. I wondered how many others were going through the motions as well. We know there are others, we see the reports. How many times have we been surprised by their actions?
As I felt better, I felt obligated to be as vocal as I had been silent. I told my story to my unit, the Air Force Network Integration Center, and I'm telling you now.
For those supervisors, friends, spouses and wingmen:
- We have to embrace the Wingman culture. A wingman is not a name and phone number on the back of a card. It is someone you know well enough to see when something is wrong, or know enough about their life and struggles to take them aside and offer to talk. If our relationship only exists Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., I'm not going to share my deepest darkest secrets with you.
- Look at your Airmen. There are signs and they are not always "giving away their stuff, experiencing financial problems, or other personality changes." I enjoy humor and laughing, an easy wall to hide behind, but I also gained 40 pounds in nine months. No one said anything.
- Beware of the curse of competency. A fine line to be sure, we can't have people backing down from stressful jobs or the tough jobs wouldn't get done. At the same time, maybe an executive officer isn't the right job for an Airman who was given a humanitarian assignment to your unit. After explaining my situation when I arrived, I was told, "We really need you to do this and it's the right time in your career. Work with your supervisor to take the time you need."
For those of you who are stressed, not sleeping, having racing thoughts, thinking of harming yourself either actively or passively:
- Talk to someone NOW. If you are worried about confidentiality, consider this: no one besides my commander and first sergeant knew. Not even the commander's exec, and he knows everything.
- If you are worried about your career, consider: I came out on the promotion list in the hospital, I pinned on major two months ago and I still have my security clearance. And my leaders let me keep my branch chief position.
- Tell your leaders if you are in over your head. I still feel that my leaders should never have put me in an exec position, but I didn't push the issue, either. I didn't want the stigma of having said no or sounding like a whiner.
- Stay active. Part of my on-going therapy is physical activity in addition to regular exercise.
- Asking for help does not show weakness, it shows courage. Be humble enough to talk to a friend, your chaplain or a Mental Health representative.
I have been reflecting on the things I would have missed. I am grateful every day, for God, my loving companion, my understanding commander, a compassionate first sergeant and for the medical professionals who got me moving in the right direction.