Misawa Air Base, Japan, received the Air Force installation Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Month Outreach Recognition Award in a ceremony at the Pentagon Hall of Heroes May 15.
It’s an award no one really wants to claim. Accepting on behalf of his team’s efforts, 35th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Kristopher Struve, said, “I don’t want to be here. I would rather we didn’t have to do it,” referring to the need for suicide prevention programs.
Each year, the DoD recognizes one military installation from each of the services, including the reserves and National Guard, for the implementation of an exceptional program focused on suicide prevention during September, designated nationwide as Suicide Prevention Month. The other installations commended this year for their suicide prevention campaigns include the Army at Fort Carson, Colorado, the Marine Corps at Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, the Navy at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and the Reserve Component/National Guard at Camp Atterbury, Indiana.
While the award is bittersweet, Struve is proud of what Misawa’s suicide prevention campaign was able to accomplish, a base he describes as a remote and rural part of Japan where sometimes Airmen and families may feel isolated.
“Some of the things we did was really all about connecting people, communication and really trying to get people out of being isolated, so building that small community,” he said.
One of the main events that kicked off Suicide Prevention Month at Misawa last year, which has carried over to this year, was conversation cards. The concept may sound simple, but Michelle Aldana, Misawa AB Violence Prevention Integrator, said they created more than 17,000 conversation cards that were placed in all of the 35th Force Support Squadron’s dining facilities. The cards encouraged people to talk to one another with conversation starters such as “what’s your favorite color or what’s your dream vacation?”
The cards were a huge hit. “We had managers who talked about it in our dining facilities, that they saw Airmen sitting in there for two and a half hours just talking, asking questions and really getting to know each other,” Aldana said.
Chief Master Sgt. John Alsvig, 35FW command chief, said he believes connections among Airmen can help encourage intervention with someone who may have suicidal ideations. He said he supports any program that gets people to understand each other, their mannerisms, and their highs and lows.
Alvig said an Airman should be able recognize what’s outside normal behavior for someone, such as if someone’s demeanor changes drastically from being overly chatty to overly quiet.
“If you don’t make those connections early on, you’re not going to know what right looks like or what a normal day is,” he said.
As a first sergeant for more than a decade, Alsvig said he unfortunately has seen a lot of helplessness and suicidal ideations over the years. That’s why he believes connections among Airmen and families are key to preventing suicide.
“You have to be engaged. You have to be aware, and you have to ask hard questions. There’s no time for seconds if they decide to take their life. And so we are committed to try to make sure people are alive, committed to making sure we are aware of the highs and lows they are going through,” Alsvig said.
Part of Misawa’s suicide prevention strategy included a free bowling weekend that brought out more than 500 participants to the base bowling alley, where Airmen and their families could socialize and take home valuable suicide prevention and stress management tips.
Another innovative idea, the evidence of which is still strewn around the base, involved painting rocks with messages of hope. The rock-painting event was so successful, it sparked its own Facebook page. Aldana said people are still finding them, and re-hiding them in other locations. And that fulfills much of the intent behind the Suicide Prevention Month campaign – creating conversations and events, the effects of which continue well beyond Sept. 30.
All Airmen honored May 15, at the Pentagon Hall of Heroes expressed a desire to keep the momentum going for suicide prevention awareness throughout the year. Air Force Maj. Eanah Whaley is the Violence Prevention Integrator at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, which won the award for the Navy. She said it was important for everyone to show people how much they care.
“So breaking down the stigma, getting out there and showing we’re people, we’re humans. Embedding ourselves within the units and not just September – all year long – and just spreading the message that you don’t have to be a bystander,” she said.
“We’re all here together, and if you take that first step, we’ll take five steps toward you,” said Whaley.