Why Everyone Should Be a Wingman

After 12 years with the nation at war, it's no wonder that military families are under stress and overwhelmed. Spouses and service members alike deal with the strain of prolonged separations. Husbands and wives of deployed members endure extended periods where they must raise children alone. Children of single service members can face significant turmoil while their primary caregiver is away. Warriors carry their experiences in battle home, but many are unsure how to cope. Considering the various strains a deployment can put on a family, the feelings of hopelessness and isolation, you realize there's no "poster child" for someone at risk for suicide.

Take Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, recently awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military citation. Carter lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even as he tries to heal, he considers himself lucky compared with those who have suffered in silence. Someone noticed his symptoms and intervened--the first steps in giving hope to a struggling soldier.

"A noncommissioned officer saved my life by putting his arm around me as he walked me to the behavioral health clinic," Carter told the media during a White House news conference. Carter's brave, heartfelt words revealed the inner turmoil and scars of war that many of our returning troops bear, shining a light on PTSD and other mental health challenges that some soldiers might be reluctant to discuss. Carter reminds us that family members, friends, neighbors, acquaintances and colleagues are the first line of defense against suicide.

In the military, fighter jets fly in formation, with the lead aircraft ahead and a backup plane off the right wing and behind. The wingman protects the lead pilot, watching his back. Each of us must be a wingman to the Veterans, service members and military families in our lives. Look out for them. Understand the risk of suicide. Let them know: You've got their backs.

Building Communities On- and Offline

A friend married to a senior Air Force officer recounted an incident that occurred soon after a squadron deployed unexpectedly in response to an earthquake. Two days after the squadron deployed, one airman's wife attempted to take her life. In the midst of her despair she had a change of heart, panicked, and decided she wanted to live. She quickly contacted a local chaplain who helped get her to safety--but the story could have ended tragically. Other military spouses wondered: How could they have better supported that woman who felt so alone?

Strengthening those community ties can be challenging. Many spouses are busy juggling career and family, working outside the home. More than three-quarters of military families don't live on the base or installation. Gathering military spouses for events isn't always possible, making it tough to build relationships and share resources. Social media offers a lifeline, providing a safe, convenient place for military spouses, significant others, and parents to find one another, vent, and exchange vital information about deployments. Senior commanders who cannot personally keep an eye on every person in their command understand the value of social media; online networks can be used to forge powerful community connections to help avert tragedy.

Modern life moves fast; people are busy. These challenges make looking out for one another more important than ever. Everyone needs a wingman, whether found in a nearby church pew, in a cubicle, or on a Facebook wall. Cultivating that wingman mentality ensures that no military husband, wife, mother or father is left behind.

Talk About It

If you're concerned about someone, know the signs of suicide risk. Warning signs include:

  • Hopelessness, feeling like there's no way out
  • Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
  • Feeling like there is no reason to live
  • Rage or anger
  • Engaging in risky activities without thinking
  • Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
  • Withdrawing from family and friends

With husbands, wives and loved ones far away and at war, the emotional burden on military families can seem overwhelming. Help the military families you know carry that weight. If someone in your life mentions thinking about or looking for ways to hurt or kill himself or herself; talks about death, dying, or suicide; or shows destructive behavior, don't stay silent. Let them know you care. Refer them to crisis resources. If you're not sure what to do, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. And remember, talking about it matters.

This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.

If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.

And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.

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