The pain of isolation

  • Published
  • By Capt. Sheila N. Johnston
  • 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Most people don't know me as the daughter of a man who committed suicide -- but I am. I have spent the last 18 years and 11 months dodging an often-used statistic which condemns me to follow in his footsteps.

According to an April 2010 New York Times article, children whose parents commit suicide are twice as likely to kill themselves. Whether this is widely applicable or not, it is used to generalize survivors affected by suicide.

Additionally, a June article from The Huffington Post reported military suicides averaged one per day (154 suicides in 155 days) to that point and were 50-percent higher than direct-combat deaths since January. Still, in some military circles, discussion of suicide is limited to chaplains, mental-health officials or small groups on designated wingman or resiliency days. These are not the only places talking about suicide prevention is appropriate.

Personally, last year was the first time I spoke about my dad's story with fellow servicemembers publicly. As the assistant director of operations for a squadron that deployed short notice worldwide, I could see how the story of one combat veteran--my dad--related to the diverse missions we supported. When I shared this with my squadron, my goal was to point out that what we do as military members is abnormal by most standards, so it's vital we don't isolate ourselves as a result.

Nov. 17 will mark 19 years I've been without my dad, and ironically, it is also the 14th annual International Survivors of Suicide Day, which targets family members affected by suicides. In my personal experience, I'd like to say there were no warning signs or that I could've recognized them and fixed the problems, even as a 12-year-old girl. But, that's not realistic. There were signs. I just didn't know how to recognize them.

Suicide's warning signs don't always follow the stereotypical "darkness." My dad had many great years after his military service, but he didn't have the benefit of support from others--an organic network of fellow servicemembers, a supportive public, or practitioners familiar with military stresses--to pull him through the not-so-good times. Combine that isolation with a host of self-medicating vices, and now from a more-informed perspective, I can see the recipe for disaster revealing itself.

There is no question that our military has improved mental-health services and developed new resources for servicemembers and their families since my dad's era.

However, since we are subjected to abnormal situations, we must make it our responsibility to use what has been given to us in order to balance that stress. Suicide is not an easy topic to tackle with anyone, but when family members or co-workers isolate themselves, this is a message anyone can intercept. While some military members still see discussing suicide prevention as taboo, it shouldn't be. The simple act of asking, "Are you ok?" lets your wingman know you see something is amiss, and it gives you both a chance to work through the next steps.

It's easy to say suicide is "selfish," but it isn't as easy for an isolated person to see what their suicide might actually cost. Highlighting that cost is where we can personally affect those around us. I have graduated, married, promoted and passed numerous milestones without the opportunity to celebrate these things with my dad at my side. I've also met many trials in life without a chance to ask his advice or gain his perspective.

Regardless of the outcome, my dad gave me an opportunity to share his story and struggle with others in my military family and hopefully prevent the loss of another of those family members to suicide.


There are many resources at our disposal whether it is for a friend in need or guidance for ourselves. Contact your base chaplain, a mental-health provider or a military and family life consultant (MFLC) with questions about a situation or location specific to you.

To make an appointment with any of the following offices at Kunsan, contact:

Mental Health (Bldg. 302) DSN 782-4841
Military Family Life Consultant (Bldg. 755) DSN 782-5644
Health and Wellness Center (Bldg. 1055) 782-4305
Chapel (Bldg. 501) 782-4300

For those wishing to speak to someone after duty hours, contact the command post at DSN 782-6000, and ask to be connected with a mental-health professional or chaplain. For those wishing to contact their local MFLC, call the Airmen and Family Readiness Center or a First Sergeant. On Kunsan, Airmen can call DSN 782-2297 or cell phone 010-4966-7317.