Those left behind: the aftermath of an Airman's suicide

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brigitte N. Brantley-Sisk
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
When Master Sgt. Robert Sams picked up Senior Airman Joshua Doherty's mother from the local airport, there was little he could say to console her for the huge loss they were all just beginning to deal with.

She was there to attend the memorial service for her son, a former 723rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief here who committed suicide Jan. 27, 2009, because of personal reasons.

"Being with his spouse and parents throughout the mourning process was just brutal," said Sergeant Sams, who was the family liaison officer assigned to Airman Doherty's family. "The young man's mother got into my car at the airport and just started crying her heart out. I didn't know what to say to console her because she would never see her son again."

Although it was tough on the family, it also took a toll on the maintenance squadron's members.

"The leadership cadre knew we had done everything possible and correctly leading up to that day," said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Claiborn, the 723rd AMXS first sergeant at the time. "We knew Airman Doherty was dealing with personal issues, and he had been in both my office and Sergeant Sams' for mentoring, and had also been referred elsewhere for counseling.

"We even asked outright if he thought of harming himself, but he instantly dismissed it as something he would never do," he added. "We helped him all we could and there were no other indications along the way that let us think suicide was a possibility. He gave all the so-called 'right' answers and gave the impression he thought things would get better."

But the morning came when Airman Doherty didn't show up for work and repeated calls and trips to his home were futile. That evening, a phone call informed the 723rd AMXS first sergeant, Master Sgt. Michael Ryan, of Airman Doherty's death and the process began to notify next-of-kin and prepare for his funeral.

"I had to make more trips back to his room to retrieve his belongings," Sergeant Sams said. "I had to pack up his clothes, including his service dress uniform and medals. It's tough picking up things that belonged to someone you know you'll never see again."

The first time Sergeant Sams spoke to Airman Doherty, he was immediately impressed by his overall bearing.

"He was one of the sharpest Airmen I'd ever met," Sergeant Sams said. "He knew how to communicate clearly and succinctly. He had a bright future in the Air Force, and losing that is hard to deal with."

Although the military lost a young man with potential, many Airmen within the 723rd AMXS also lost something else -- a close friend.

Senior Airman Ryan James had been friends with Airman Doherty since they were at technical school together.

"He was an outgoing, comedic guy who made everything fun, and he definitely won't be forgotten," Airman James said. "We had so many good times. We went to Savannah, Ga., for St. Patrick's Day and spent hours in my room playing Guitar Hero. He was talented on the guitar and really liked playing my keyboard."

Requested by Airman Doherty's mother to be at the Feb. 21 funeral in Nevada, Airman James attended and performed two songs on the keyboard, including the emotional "I Can Only Imagine."

"Seeing my best friend in an open casket felt like a hammer just pounding me," Airman James said. "It was hard to believe he would never wake up. Once he was gone, things were different, and it felt like a piece was missing from my everyday life.

"While everyone has their problems, it can be hard to know what they're really going through unless you're very direct with them," he added. "Airman Doherty was the type of guy I could always go to and talk about what was going on in my life."

Because he was so close to Airman Doherty, the suicide has led Airman James to take a more direct approach when he notices signs of stress in other Airmen.

"Soon after the suicide, someone else started showing signs they were under a lot of stress, so I went to them and directly asked, 'What's going on?' and 'Do you want to talk?'" Airman James said. "I put myself out there and talk to those who need it. Letting them know what's going on in my life and what's stressing me out helps them open up.

"People who think about hurting themselves often conclude they're alone, or there's not anybody who cares, but there is always some for them to talk to," Airman James said. "A permanent solution to a temporary problem will affect so many more people than the one who's no longer here."