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Tinker civilian vows to help others after son’s suicide

Rocky Dunham shows a picture of his son, Joey, who committed suicide more than two years ago. Since then, the tools and parts attendant in the 552nd Commodities Maintenance Squadron regularly speaks in the community about suicide prevention in the hope of sparing others from going through the pain of losing a loved one. (Air Force photo by John Stuart)

Rocky Dunham shows a picture of his son, Joey, who committed suicide more than two years ago. Since then, the tools and parts attendant in the 552nd Commodities Maintenance Squadron regularly speaks in the community about suicide prevention in the hope of sparing others from going through the pain of losing a loved one. (Air Force photo by John Stuart)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- There's not a day that goes by in which Rocky Dunham doesn't think about his deceased son. It's been more than two years since Joey, Mr. Dunham's youngest son, committed suicide on a spring day in May 2008. And yet, the grief that resonated in the hearts of Mr. Dunham and his wife, Linda, is still a tangible commodity today. If you talk for even a few minutes with the thoughtful, soft-spoken Mr. Dunham, you realize he's still hurting.

"Everytime I talk about (Joey) it's like peeling a scab off a wound and pouring salt in it," he says, sitting in the expansive 552nd Commodities Maintenance Squadron shop he calls his professional home at Tinker.

The tools and parts attendant is still as he speaks, as if an invisible burden has crept upon him and come to rest squarely on his shoulders. His demure composure contrasts with the bustling shop of workers that whirls in the periphery.

Mr. Dunham talks about his son, who was plagued with depression from his failing marriage.

Journeyman ironworker, advanced scuba diver, sports car enthusiast, man of God. Before Joey's death, he had talked to his dad about skydiving -- a prospect dear to Mr. Dunham and his more than 300 recorded skydives. But Joey was also a devoted father. His daughter was six years old when he died.

"He was a great dad. He loved being a father," Mr. Dunham said, tears welling at the corners.

If you had asked him in 2008, it's likely Mr. Dunham would've said the death of his son was just too much to bear. Faith in God, he says, is the only thing that carried his family through the aftermath.

But now, though Joey's passing is a lasting scar, Mr. Dunham is buoyed by another life impetus.

"If I can keep someone else from feeling the same pain, then his death wasn't in vain," Mr. Dunham says, noting that suicide is the No. 11 leading cause of death in Oklahoma. He means it, too. Since Joey's death, Mr. Dunham has been busy. With a certification from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health, he routinely educates people through QPR training, instructing them to question, persuade and refer those who might be contemplating suicide.

He regularly speaks out in the community -- "wherever he can" -- about suicide prevention and hopes to spare others from the grave news he received from the police officer that night in 2008.

"The police officer said 'I'm sorry sir, your son is dead,'" Mr. Dunham recalls. "I walked in the house to tell my wife. I said 'Joey's in heaven. He doesn't hurt anymore.'"

Mr. Dunham, also a Baptist minister of an Oklahoma City church, wants to ensure that no one else hurts. He has walked to Tulsa from Oklahoma City to raise awareness for suicide prevention -- a sojourn he'll repeat this October. He's also involved in his Midwest City community.

This month will be the 2nd Annual Gordon Joel "Joey" Dunham Memorial Walk for Suicide Prevention, from 9 to 11 a.m. Aug. 28. The walk will be held in Joe B. Barnes Regional Park in Midwest City. Where Brig. Gen. Bruce Litchfield spoke at last year's event, Jack Poe, chaplain of the Oklahoma City Police Department will be this year's keynote speaker.

The Dunhams hope the event will comfort those who have lost loved ones to suicide, as well as give them the tools to prevent it from happening to others.

"There are places to call, there are people who care," Mr. Dunham says, of local 24-hour hotlines for those with thoughts of suicide.

While Mr. Dunham recognizes his life will never return to normal, he's found peace about the why of Joey's death, and now chooses to focus on the how of using his experiences to help.

"There's good that will come out of it. And if I have to hurt to help someone else, so be it," Mr. Dunham says.