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Airman shares suicide story, raises awareness

U.S. Air Force Airman Cassidy Gonzales, 23d Medical Operations Squadron mental health technician, grips the hand of Airman Giancarlo Carter, 23d Wing broadcast journalist apprentice, Aug. 31, 2016, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Since September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Air Force leadership takes this time to remind Airmen about the power of wingmanship and emphasize the resources available to combat hard times. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Daniel Snider)

U.S. Air Force Airman Cassidy Gonzales, 23d Medical Operations Squadron mental health technician, grips the hand of Airman Giancarlo Carter, 23d Wing broadcast journalist apprentice, Aug. 31, 2016, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Since September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Air Force leadership takes this time to remind Airmen about the power of wingmanship and emphasize the resources available to combat hard times. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Daniel Snider)

MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --

“February seventh, I attempted to commit suicide.

“That day I took eight [painkillers],” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kirk Nelson, 23d Force Support Squadron honor guard head trainer. “My body was shaking and I started throwing-up. I was lightheaded, standing outside in 32-degree weather and pouring sweat. People walking by asked if I was alright, but I wasn’t letting anybody know.”

After roughly eight months, Nelson is ready to share how loss and stressors of daily military life inevitably brought the 27-year-old Airman to his breaking point with hopes his story will help others understand and prevent suicides.

Nelson wasn’t put in this situation overnight. It was the result of bottling up emotions for years and refusing to open up after a chain of unfortunate events that began with the loss of his father, his pillar of strength and support, in 2008. This left him to look after and his mother and younger sister. Later, a divorce left him unable to see his daughter for more than a year.

Although it may be hard to discuss depression or suicide, one conversation could become someone’s saving grace. After his attempt, Nelson made the decision to voice what happened and how he felt.

“I was nervous even thinking about talking,” said Nelson. “I didn’t know how they would react. I went to my flight chief and said ‘hey this happened a couple days ago. It’s not me. I keep thinking I shouldn’t be here.’”

Due to the relationship Nelson developed with his flight chief while deployed, his flight chief recognized the signs. He immediately grabbed his hat and took Nelson to the mental health clinic to speak with a counselor, a move Nelson credits as his redeeming moment.

“Really getting to know the people beforehand so you’re able to pick up on small nuances and figure out, ‘something's off with this person, I really need to ask what’s going on,’” said Capt. Bryan Presler, 23d Medical Operations Squadron staff psychologist. “Really be their friend before the situation actually occurs. Someone’s not going to feel as comfortable talking to you if you don’t have that relationship in the first place.”

While the reasons an individual wouldn’t want anyone knowing their struggles are plentiful, strong wingmanship can definitely make a difference while also making the warning signs more distinct.

“I’d make light of my situation and tried to cope by joking about [death],” said Nelson. “A lot of people did ask if I was alright, but I told them I’m perfectly alright because I didn’t want them to know I was struggling.”

The mental health clinic exists to help Airmen, but unfortunately some believe that using this resource may negatively impact their career.

“I think a lot of people have some symptoms, but for fear of affecting their career, or even not really wanting to face those issues, don’t come in here and sometimes it can lead to suicidal ideation,’” said Presler. “It’s much more manageable if it’s taken care of right away as opposed to waiting 5-10 years down the road when everything’s built up and the dam breaks.

“It seems that people say ‘I should have [come] a lot sooner.’”

No matter what level of stress, tragedy or depression one may face, the mental health clinic works to ensure an individual’s worst day isn’t their last.

“It really shows strength when you’re willing to say ‘I can’t manage these things on my own, I need some assistance,” said Presler. “It’s important for our kids, spouses, fellow Airmen and everyone involved in our life that we really take the time to take care of ourselves. We can’t take care of others if we’re not okay.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, reminding every Airman about the power of wingmanship, but also understanding the resources available to combat hard times and continue the decreasing number of suicides per year.

For help dealing with a stressful situation or more information contact:

                                                                                                  Mental Health Clinic at 229-257-3898

                                                                                                                Chaplains at 229-257-3211

                                                                                   Military Family Life Consultant at 229-561-7915

                                                                                                      Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647