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Watching for signs of suicide helps save lives

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Recognizing early warning signs of suicide can help prevent a Wingman from taking their own life. However, one Tinker Airman relied on gut instinct alone to save her brother's life when the warning sign he gave was not as visible.

While looking at Facebook on her phone, the Airman saw a post from her brother that read, "I want to go Home." After reading the message a few times she said her instincts kicked in and she realized something was not right. She replied asking if he was simply wanting to return to his home or if he was having suicidal thoughts.

"I think it was a cry for help," the Airman said. "I would have thought he was having a stressful day at work and wanted to go home, but as soon as I realized he capitalized 'home,' I knew there was something more to it."

Later that evening, her brother responded to her message with an apology to his family saying he no longer wished to live. At that moment, she said it was fight or flight to save her brother's life. Because her brother was eight hours drive from Oklahoma City, she began calling police, local mental health facilities and emergency rooms to see if his description matched anybody at those facilities. She also called relatives who lived close to her brother, asking them to check on him.

Her family thought the Airman was looking to deep into her brother's message because he had visited with family just hours before making the post, and he showed no signs of acting out of the ordinary. When the family members finally read the Facebook post saying he no longer wished to live, she said everybody realized he was serious. A frantic search for her brother's whereabouts began at 11 p.m. that night.

"It was the most tearful, stressful, exciting and scared time of my life," she said. "Those are the most nerve-racking moments of my life that I have ever experienced."

While trying to convince her family her brother wanted to take his own life, the Airman said she was continually texting and calling her brother, but with no response. She was also networking with his Facebook friends to find out any information she could about his location.

Her brother was a gun and knife collector, and thoughts of thoughts of how her brother would take his life began running through her head. She continued texting her brother about what was going on in her life, their nieces and stories about their childhood growing up together. She also sent text messages to her brother asking what he was doing, where he was and what his plans were. Every fourth text message she sent, the Airman said she called her brother to try and get him on the phone.

"I knew he was checking his phone messages from me because there's no way you can get that many messages and not have a full mailbox," she said. "I was texting anything that came to my mind because if I was texting, maybe he was reading them and still coherent enough to respond back. I didn't beat around the bush about it. I let him know I didn't want to go through the rest of my life not knowing what happened to him or where I could find his body."

At 1:30 a.m. her brother finally sent a text message back to her. A temporary sigh of relief came over her because she knew he was alive and coherent enough to use his phone.

The Airman said she and her brother are the closest to each other and the most "rational" thinking of her five siblings. During their texting conversation they discussed his recent breakup with his girlfriend and their father, who passed away at the age of 57 from lung cancer. She said her brother felt ashamed that he had not become the son his father wanted him to be. Though they were communicating through texts, her brother still did not accept her phone calls.

At approximately 2:30 a.m. she said the text messages started coming in at a slower pace. The Airman said she thought her brother must have taken pills that were beginning to affect his body. After persistent questions about his whereabouts, he finally gave a location.

"I think my text messaging broke him down and he got tired of me ringing his phone, disrupting his thoughts," she said. "I was just thinking as long as he is still reading he is still breathing and he wasn't thinking about doing anything stupid.

"He said I am at the last spot that actually meant something to me," she said. "I contacted his ex-girlfriend to see if there was a place they used to hang out and she gave me a round-about location in the back of an undeveloped neighborhood."

While she was texting her brother, she was in constant communication with her mother at the local police department, at the same time guiding her siblings to their brother's location using an online map, all while sitting in her home in Oklahoma, hundreds of miles away from the rest of her family.

The police were the first to find her brother's car down a desolate dirt road, closely followed by her family members. Pills were strewn across the front seat of his car, along with two empty 40-ounce beer bottles and two suicide notes.

"If we didn't make it to him, he would have passed away," she said. "It was nine hours of torture. For some reason my family had an attitude of 'we don't believe in mental health,' and they didn't realize something was wrong until they read his message. I think we could have found him a lot sooner than we did if they believed me."

The Airman said her brother was admitted to the hospital and had his stomach pumped twice. She said her mother waited patiently for him to want to speak to people again.

Staff Sgt. Jennifer Garrison, mental health technician in the 72nd Medical Group, said it is important to be patient and mindful when speaking to somebody recovering from a suicide attempt. She added the individual is more than likely to feel ashamed and vulnerable at first, but they will speak again when they are ready.

"It's important to remember to think before you speak," Sergeant Garrison said. "Don't make them promise to not do this again, don't say anything out of the ordinary. Just treat them like it's another day, let them know you are there for them and reassure them you will not hold this against them."

After a week of treatment in a mental health facility, the Airman said her brother was a completely different person and he felt excited his plan failed. She said her brother is a philosophical thinker and posts thought-provoking messages on social media sites on a regular basis.

"I really don't know why I picked up on that comment," the Airman said. "He was dealing with a real internal struggle and didn't know how to let it out. Luckily he capitalized that "h" because that's what set me thinking."

There are several risk factors or warning signs used to identify somebody who could have suicidal thoughts. National Suicide Prevention Week begins Sept. 4, and Sergeant Garrison said a person may not think of suicide when giving their personal possessions away or isolating themselves. She said it is simply something going on with this person and they need somebody to step in and talk to them.

Sergeant Garrison said discussions about suicide should be normalized. Even though you may not have thought about suicide, she said everybody has thought about death. When thoughts of death start becoming intrusive, it can start a downward spiral that she said could lead to a suicide attempt. She said it is important to encourage and show respect for somebody who had decided to seek mental help.

"Talking about suicide is not going to make anybody suicidal," Sergeant Garrison said. "We all have gut instincts and if you think something might be suspicious, go ahead and ask. Be upfront about it. If you don't confront them, how will you ever know what's going on in that person's life?

"It's best to ask even if they don't tell you because they may tell the next person who asks," she added. "You don't want to be the last person to speak to that person and you didn't ask. We need to look out for each other and we need to look out for ourselves."

For more information about counseling or suicide prevention, contact the base chaplain at 734-2111, Mental Health Office at 734-4393, Military Life Consultants through the Command Post at 739-2171 or visit militaryonesource.com for information about free, off-base counseling.