As a wingman, look for signals of distress

  • Published
  • By MSgt. Mark Lis
  • 439th Aircraft Maintenance
Last spring, I attended the funeral of a friend, classmate and fellow veteran.

His passing marked the second time in 2013 that a family friend had committed suicide.

His troubles were many, and he hid them well. We spoke often and had many "war stories" to tell each other. I'd seen him at least weekly at our Student Veterans Alliance meetings at a local community college. He seemed to be no different than any other Afghanistan-Iraq veteran trying to find his way back into society.

He was supposed to meet other alliance members at a local cemetery to help decorate veterans' graves with new flags for Memorial Day. We started to wonder when he didn't show up. We notified the police. Later, his body was discovered in a local forest.

This young man -- a decorated Marine veteran, husband, father and hero - had taken his own life. We all were devastated. What circumstances led this veteran to the point where he could not go on?

We now know he had some problems, just like all of us often do. Money troubles, family issues and the lack of meaningful employment, coupled with the stress of having been deployed, all probably played a role in his decision.

Yes, as military members, we all have been where he was. But what makes someone think he can't go on with life?

I don't know if we'll ever have the answers. Having been in the military for more than 20 years, I've attended countless briefings on suicide and suicide prevention. In the aftermath of my friend's death, however, I had many questions for myself.

Why did I not see this coming? What could I have done to make it possible for this young man to still be here today, enjoying his family, friends and life?

In truth, it is possible that no one could have stopped my friend from taking his life. When someone decides he wants to commit suicide, it can be difficult to recognize the warning signs and get him the help needed. But we need to be aware of the signals that someone might be contemplating such an action.

I wanted to share some of my research. Any of the following could be potential warning signs:

Depression. Individuals contemplating suicide experience many different emotions, including sadness, hopelessness and anxiety. Depression usually includes a loss of interest in life and the things that are happening around the depressed person. Major depression, when discovered in time, can be treated through medication and therapy.

Talking about dying.
Those who are considering suicide will often think about various methods for killing themselves. They'll sometimes discuss with others different ways in which they can die. They may also be thinking about ways in which others have killed themselves.

Sleep patterns. Someone who's depressed and considering suicide may experience a change in sleeping habits. A depressed person may move from following a regular schedule to sleeping for long periods of time or, alternately, to becoming hyperactive, restless and not sleeping at all.

Concentration. A loss of focus at work or in school, as well as in extracurricular activities, may also be a symptom of depression. If you notice someone is not putting as much effort into life as usual, it can be a sign that he or she is depressed.

Lack of goals. Those who are contemplating suicide will exhibit a disinterest in the future and in any goals they have previously wanted to reach. They'll also seem to not care about current events happening around them that relate to the future.

Don't be afraid to ask a relative, friend or acquaintance directly if he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide.

If you become concerned that someone you know is at risk for suicide, don't leave that person alone. If possible, ask for help from his or her family or friends. Try to keep everyone involved in the situation calm.

Ask the person to give you any weapons he or she might have. Take away or remove sharp objects or anything else that the person could use to hurt himself or herself. In some cases, the person is just looking for the chance to talk about his or her feelings and just needs to know that someone cares. It's fine to listen, but you should then encourage him or her to seek professional help. Call 911 or take the person to an emergency room.

Can suicide be prevented? In many cases, it can't with any certainty, but the likelihood of suicide can be reduced with timely intervention. Research suggests that the best way to prevent suicide is to know the risk factors, be alert to the signs of depression and other mental disorders, recognize the warning signs, and intervene before the person can complete the process of self-destruction.

A senior NCO's job is to take care of Airmen. Get to know those serving under your direction. All wingmen should ask questions, and show you care for your fellow Airman's well-being. Your genuine concern for your Airmen may be just what they need.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: MSgt. Lis is assigned to the 439th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. In addition to personal experience with the loss of his friend, his article cites research from WebMD ( and