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Journey to recovery

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Then-Tech. Sgt. Janet Lemmons realized she couldn’t breathe in the hospital room. It was as if there wasn’t enough space for her family’s grief and the air collectively. She had to get out.

Lemmons stepped into the elevator that would take her someplace where she could breathe, but the cold steel walls provided no comfort as they sealed her in. She took several deep breaths as the elevator descended. The doors opened on friends and family, and they all knew exactly what had happened as soon as they saw her.

Her oldest son, Tommy, was dead.

Lemmons stepped out into a surreal world where nothing was as it should be, and didn’t feel like it ever would be.

“How am I going to laugh again?” said Lemmons, now a senior master sergeant and the sustainment services superintendent for the 176th Force Support Squadron. “What is life going to be like? How am I going to eat again? How is anything ever going to be enjoyable again?”

Before Tommy grew into a 6-foot, 4-inch tall bodybuilder, he was a small child with large ambitions. Lemmons said by 12, he was pretty much running the family business, a drive-thru coffee shop, as the self-proclaimed manager.

He had an important task, to relieve his mother from her shift, so he was always on time. When he wasn’t making money at the coffee shop, he was buying bulk candy and selling it for profit at school, Lemmons said.

“I remember one day I asked him if I could have an Airhead and he said ‘Only if you have a quarter.’ He was not going to eat his profits,” Lemmons said. “He was so cute.”

As Tommy grew up, so did his ambitions. He started working at a bank as a teller and worked his way up the corporate ladder. By 21, he was selling mortgages to would-be homeowners. His interests branched off into mixed martial arts and bodybuilding, but Lemmons said he’ll always be her ambitious little son.

Shock

It was three in the morning when she got the call.

“I usually never keep a phone in our bedroom,” Lemmons said. “But that night I just happened to plug it in. I answered it and heard, ‘This is trooper so-and-so, are you Tommy Blair’s mom?’

He got into a fight with someone and he’s in jail, she thought. But it was much worse.

“The trooper said, ‘Tommy was at a party, there was a gun and he shot himself,’ she recalled. Confused, she tried to process the words, still struggling out of sleep. “Well, where did he shoot himself?” she asked.

“In the head,” the trooper replied.

Lemmons asked the trooper to call Rick Cavens, the wing chaplain, and spat out the command post’s number. Her husband wasn’t home; he was two hours away on business.

In thick fog of interrupted sleep, Lemmons assumed the injury was just a graze. The thought of a fatal accident was an alien concept. That kind of thing happened on the news, not at home where it’s safe.

As she washed her face Lemmons recalled thinking, “Is this real? Am I dreaming or am I awake?”

That’s when the police started pounding on her door and the house went from very quiet to very loud. Her son Ausdin hollered, ‘What’s going on?” and answered the door.

“Are you Janet Lemmons?” the police officer asked. “Get to the hospital, now!”

Still thinking he’d grazed himself, Lemmons reacted as any mother awakened by her son’s shenanigans might. She started explaining to Ausdin, her youngest son just how bad Tommy was in for it when she got there to chew him out.

“When I got there, I thought oh … this is not what I thought,” Lemmons said. “I saw the wing chaplain standing there waiting for me. He said, ‘What’s going on?’ I told him I didn’t know.

“I walked into this small little room and all the chairs were just full. Everybody was crying.”

The hospital’s chaplain pulled Lemmons and Cavens aside to explain what had happened.

“It was really weird,” Lemmons said. “She was explaining how he shot himself in a lot of detail and the impact to his body. He was this vibrant, full-of-life young person. He’d never talk again; he was basically going to be a vegetable.”

Then, the hospital chaplain said something much worse -- he was going to die.

Walk, sit, walk, sit. It was all she could do as she tried to process what was happening.

She sent a police officer to fetch her husband from Glenallen, and called Tommy’s dad. He started screaming.

“No! Keep him alive! Just keep him alive until I get back!” he shouted at her from where he worked on the North Slope, thousands of miles away.

“I promised I would,” Lemmons said. “How could I promise that? It felt like a lie.”

Neither her husband nor Tommy’s father would make it to Anchorage in time. Lemmons went upstairs, where she was met by a team of doctors who pulled her into another room to explain to her again that her baby boy was going to die.
He lay on the hospital bed, wearing nothing but a sheet pulled up just below his chest. Lemmons couldn’t kiss her son, who had tubes and cords spilling out of him, robbing her of one last moment of intimacy.

“You couldn’t even tell anything had happened,” Lemmons said. “He had a bandage on the back of his head. There was no swelling or anything. He couldn’t talk, he was unconscious.”

She sat watching with her daughter Andrea, a few years Tommy’s senior, and Ausdin. The whirring of the various machines keeping her son alive began to get quieter and quieter as the nurses shut them down.

Ausdin couldn’t stay; Lemmons said he couldn’t watch his big brother pass away. She called in Tommy’s girlfriend, knowing she’d want to be there. There they sat and she could feel his hand getting colder, then his arm, as she followed the receding warmth to his chest -- and then it was gone.

The first week was the worst.

“I remember that first day, I could count every half hour of that first day,” Lemmons said. “I lay in bed that night, staring at the ceiling. I was too tired to cry anymore and I could hear my son Ausdin, my sister and my niece wailing -- it was as if my house and walls were mourning the loss of Tommy.”

Then, Lemmons found out she wasn’t done crying yet. She wept silently, because her family was hurting.

Anger

Every moment was a different emotion as Lemmons began the process of healing in her own way. The feelings weren’t consistent or logical, just powerful waves of raw emotion.

She woke up the next day, furious.

“I wanted to throw the biggest fit,” Lemmons said. “Nobody was awake yet and I thought I was going to break something.”

Lemmons wasn’t going to let the cold, hard ground take her son, she said. When the day came for her family to pick an urn at the funeral home, the director peppered her with questions. He kept referring to Tommy with deference and distinctly in the past tense.

“I wanted to scream at him to stop it,” Lemmons said. “Then he asked me to sign documents to release the body and I felt like I was signing the last time as his mom.”

Mixed with her sorrow, she found confusion and its accomplice -- anger.

“Why did they do this to themselves? If it was an accident, you’d want to blame somebody, the brakes, the rain, circumstance,” Lemmons said. “But with suicide, you blame the person, because they did it to themselves.”

Tommy’s death was ruled a suicide, but it was also different. He’d had 14 drinks and no food. He wasn’t himself and packed a pistol for a planned hike for protection from bears. Lemmons suspects it was an accident during a drunken, angry argument, but the doubt will always be there -- and with it the emotions.

“Couldn’t we have done something to help him process?” she said. “Why didn’t he want to reach out to us? When someone takes their life, they might think they are taking away their pain, but what they don’t realize is they are leaving their pain with their loved ones left behind.”

The week following his passing was the worst of her life, Lemmons said. Her house was flooded with well-wishers and family, in whom she found great comfort. But explaining to each new person forced her to relive the worst night of her life again and again.

Isolation

“I knew it was hard for my friends and co-workers,” Lemmons said. “I used to hear, ‘I just can’t imagine what you’re going through,’ I felt so alone -- it was as if the world was saying, ‘Whatever you have, I don’t want it.’”

Eventually, the friends had to leave and the family members had to fly back home. That left Lemmons and her family alone in their grief.

When she went to pick up Tommy’s Social Security card from the bank, a young lady at the counter greeted her with all the cheer of a good customer service agent, inquiring as to the quality of her day.

“I wanted to scream at her, ‘My son just died!’” Lemmons said. “I took a deep breath and tried to smile and said, ‘Fine.’ I had to put on a fake smile. I just kept thinking fake it until you make it; I thought if I kept faking it, it’d be true.”

Recovery

Lemmons realized she didn’t want to be alone; it scared her, so she started reaching out for help.

“Sharing my story helps me in my grief recovery,” she said. “If one person is touched by Tommy’s story, then my prayer has been answered.”

Lemmons and her family spent the first year following Tommy’s death picking up the pieces of their life and began to put them back together into something distinctly different than it had been, but functional all the same.

“I couldn’t stop crying at first,” Lemmons said. “Until at one point my husband just said, ‘That’s enough. You have two other children, and you have me. You can grieve Tommy, but this is enough. You can’t make the other two feel guilty.’ It really put perspective to my grief. I was making my kids feel like he was more special because he was gone, and they’re still here.

“I just don’t want these strongholds in my life,” she continued. “I want to enjoy my other two children. I want to have goals and dreams myself. I don’t want to be stuck in grief. I want to live.”

Determined to make something of her grief, Lemmons applied to be a first sergeant.

“After I got the job, one of the security forces’ young men killed himself,” Lemmons said. “His brother was in my unit; he was 22. I remember how Ausdin felt losing his brother. I was always checking up on him. I asked (the unit) if they were checking on (the brother). I reached out as much as I possibly could, but a couple months later, the brother killed himself.

“I remember talking to his mother, thinking she lost two of her four children in less than six months,” she continued. “I remember just bawling and crying together. I realized that’s where I was supposed to be.”

Lemmons spent the next six years wading through the weeds of grief, using her experience to help others vocationally while she led grief share groups on her own time. When her time was up as a first sergeant, she began taking speaking opportunities to thousands of troops all around the Pacific theater.

One day, Lemmons got another phone call, this time it was from Ausdin. He told her that he was officially older than his big brother. Lemmons grieved, not just for herself, but for her son who counted the year, month and day to his brother’s death.

“I realized then that life would always be bittersweet and I had to make a decision,” she said. “That decision was, I choose to be happy. One thing about grief is you have to lean into it, not run from it.”