Just Keep Swimming
by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Magen M. Reeves
July 11, 2020
Suicide Awareness and Prevention is a hot topic in many modern discussions. For some, however, it is not just a conversation but a way of life.
Staff Sgt. Justin Waters, 325th Fighter Wing equal opportunity noncommissioned officer in charge, has been leading the movement against suicide at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
“I see mental health being a very hot topic and focus in the coming years and decades,” said Waters. “As Airmen we are asked to be flexible and accomplish the mission sometimes our mental health can get put on the back burner. Our missions are changing daily and we are being asked to do more with less on a constant basis. This can be added stress on top of what we all deal with on a personal basis and our health to be able to keep up with those stresses.”
The Department of Defense’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office shows through an Annual Suicide Report for 2018 that a total of 80 Air Force personnel committed suicide across active duty, reserve and air national guard components. The Air Force reported 137 suspected suicides in 2019, which is an average of 11 per month, and an increase of 71.25 percent from the previous year. Cases for 2020 have not been calculated to date.
Suicide can negatively affect mission readiness and capabilities, decrease morale, and possibly contribute to a decline in retainability or recruitment.
“I believe we should be looking at how we can continuously be pro-active on this topic,” said Waters. “A study conducted by Julie Cerel, University of Kentucky, found that up to 135 people are impacted by one suicide. The impact of suicide is far more reaching than just those who have passed.”
“It impacts the supervisors, subordinates, peers, friends, families and communities,” he continued. “Suicide awareness and prevention is important to me because in my eyes no one ever has to take that route. Granted, everyone goes through different struggles and no two are alike, there is always someone or some resource ready to help.”
On Dec. 14, 2019, Waters and his co-host Staff Sgt. Kristian Hoffman-Martinez, 325th Communications Squadron radio frequency transmission systems supervisor, both members of Focus 5/6 which is a professional group for E-5s and E-6s, organized and hosted a joint motorcycle rally with the local community to spread the word of suicide awareness.
“Justin came to me with the idea after his friend had attempted suicide,” said Hoffman-Martinez. “He wanted to organize a local motorcycle ride to show his friend that he wasn't alone and had people that care for him. Justin not only created a beautiful idea, but he assembled a team of people who shared the same compassion and felt honored to be able to do something very unique to Tyndall and the surrounding community. “
Approximately 16 Tyndall service members, friends and family rode out from the base and joined Panama City locals in a massive rally called Ride4Life.
“Staff Sergeant Waters coordinated the first ever Panama City Ride4Life event,” said Senior Master Sgt. D’Nitrist Knowlton, 325th FW equal opportunity superintendent and supervisor to Waters. “I’ve seen him take drastic measures to help ensure a friend displaying suicide behaviors was safe and received the help they needed.”
The event focused on spreading awareness, bonding for those who may be struggling with suicidal ideations and depressions, and overall togetherness.
“I was taken back by how many people were openly engaged in sharing their struggles, stressors, and their secrets as to how they overcame it,” said Hoffman-Martinez. “The atmosphere was filled with unified solidarity and love for anyone struggling with suicide or mental health. In the end, we will never know how many lives were saved or impacted that day but what we do know is that we tried and that is something worth celebrating.”
Attendees included those from Tyndall, locals and veterans from all branches of service.
“Based on what I’ve seen from those who attempt, or worse commit suicide, they lack the feeling of importance or belonging,” said Waters.
“Suicide didn’t really start to have a real impact on me until 2014 when I was deployed,” he continued. “Half-way through my deployment I received a message from my mother explaining that my uncle took his own life. It had also hit closer to home after my twins were born. Their mother experienced post-partum [depression]. Without going into detail about the conversations, she just needed someone to vent to, someone to let her know she is needed and valued.”
Waters experienced having to deal with suicide from those close to him, but he didn’t stop there.
“I have even had a friend, who is a veteran, show signs of suicide,” said Waters. “These signs were shown on social media in his posts. For this situation, I was there just as a sounding board and when things seemed really dark, I went as far as calling the local police department to conduct a welfare check.”
Waters contacted Hoffman-Martinez and asked for help with the situation.
“I received a call from Justin telling me the situation and asking if I come assist him,” he said. “I dropped what I was doing, prayed, and rushed over to him. I actually got pulled over for speeding. When I explained to the police the situation he was understanding and said ‘go take care of your friend. When arrived I found Justin hugging his friend and consoling him. I am afraid that man would no longer be here if it wasn't for Justin's selflessness that day.”
Signs of suicidal ideations and symptoms of depression come in many forms and through multiple mediums. Identifying these signs appropriately can be difficult because of the variety of ways people can exhibit these issues.
“In all of these scenarios, the common trends were feeling unable to deal weight of the world, not feeling connected nor a sense of belonging and finally just not enjoying life by letting everyday stress interrupt happiness,” said Waters. “You may not always get along with a person or understand their situation but, when they reach out for help you should be there for them.”
Many individuals who have been touched by suicide in some shape of form can be more keen to detect it as opposed to others. This, however, does not mean that the person suffering was not cared about or cared for.
“Each time someone I know has taken their own life I always wonder why didn’t this person speak up, or did they?” said Waters. “What signs were they showing that were missed.”
That is why suicide awareness and prevention education and training is so important; not everyone knows what it looks like or how to handle the situation appropriately.
“I’d rather spend 30 minutes or an hour being an ear for someone in need than asking questions at the news of their death,” said Waters.
“He is one of my closest friends and demonstrates to me selflessness, compassion, love, optimism, a ‘can do’ attitude, and all the qualities of a good friend and what an Airman and NCO is supposed to look like,” said Hoffman-Martinez.
In some cases, the topic can be somewhat desensitized, especially in the Air Force culture. Service members can often live very separated, lonely lifestyles. They can also be compartmentalized from supporters or resources by other barriers.
“If I notice someone is more tense or down than usual, I will ask that person flat out if they are okay,” said Waters. “At that point nothing else matters except for the person. Not titles, rank or background. I have realized the importance of recognizing the signs of suicide to help make an impactful change.”
If an individual says they are thinking about hurting themselves, the official Air Force policy is Ask, Care, and Escort (ACE). Ask and Care are self-explanatory. Escort is when a person will escort the individual in need to a helping agency such as a first sergeant, a chaplain or the base’s mental health team.
“No one is in this alone,” said Waters. “There are resources available during times of need. The struggles in our lives come in waves. There will be ups and there will be downs, however, we must just keep swimming forward.”
For Suicide Awareness and Prevention helping agencies please contact any of the options listed below.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline ... (800) 273-8255
SPARE (Suicide, Prevention, Awareness, Response and Education)
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