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Follow up: It can be a matter of life, death

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. (AFNS) -- She was a hero. She was someone who had the courage to act when it mattered most. She was a true wingman. She saw the warning signs of depression and suicidal ideations in a friend, she made the right calls, made the right decisions and her friend's life was saved. This Airman knew the warning signs well, because she had been there before.

I had the opportunity to meet this life-saving Airman after learning of her proactive intervention. I sat with her in my office as she tearfully related to me some of her personal experience with depression and thoughts of taking her own life, and how that helped her know what to do when she realized her friend felt she had reached the end of hope.

This Airman was able to meet with me that day because she sought help, and, thankfully and more importantly, she was there for her friend when she needed her the most. She said, "Asking for help is not a weakness. It's a strength. You've got to be able to admit you need help, and that takes strength."

About a year after I spoke with this "hero Airman," I was informed that she had tragically taken her own life. I was stunned. How could an Airman who seemed to have risen from depression, and had even saved someone's life, end up in a frame of mind where taking her life appeared her only option? What went wrong? Why didn't her previous experiences and knowledge work?

The major lesson I learned from all of this was that preventing suicide is not a one-time event. This Airman's saga demonstrates that we cannot assume that once someone has received mental health treatment and successfully walked through dark times that they're inoculated and won't relapse and require further help. We also can't assume that just because someone acknowledges that they know asking for help is a sign of strength that they will actually do it (even if they have in the past).

I'm not insinuating that anyone who has sought mental health help or has expressed suicidal ideations should be on perpetual suicide watch. What I'm getting at is that we need to be engaged with our Airmen and know how they are doing no matter how "stable" or "unstable" we perceive them to be.

I was stationed at what was then Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and our wing commander was Brig. Gen. Thomas Tinsley. I remember attending a commander's call at the base theater where Tinsley encouraged us to be good wingmen and to seek help if we needed it. He was clear in his delivery, confident as a leader and by all appearances had it all together. It was for these reasons I was shocked to learn only a couple weeks after that commander's call that Tinsley had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. What went wrong? He was a general officer. I guess I assumed at the time that someone like him shouldn't be at risk.

Mental health issues and factors that lead to suicide are no respecters of rank, job, gender or age. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking there's a demographic that's "safe" and to whom we don't need to pay attention. Every Airman matters and we need to care for each other accordingly.

Really taking care of Airmen means more than passing them off to a helping agency, assuming they're good to go, and then moving on. It means following up over the long term and not allowing ourselves to believe that anyone is immune from needing a helping hand, and more than just once. It may be that follow up is the difference between life and death.

Editor's note: If you or someone you know is thinking about hurting yourself or others, help is available. Contact mental health, a chaplain, family advocacy or someone in your chain of command today, you can find helpful resources on your base's resiliency Web page or the Air Force's suicide prevention Web page.