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Listening and Leadership Can Save Lives

Lt. Col. Scott Christensen, 331st Training Squadron commander, holds a positive message of support at a base gate during the morning inbound commute as part of their new initiative, “We Care,” at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

Lt. Col. Scott Christensen, 331st Training Squadron commander, holds a positive message of support at a base gate during the morning inbound commute as part of their new initiative, “We Care,” at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texa. The 323rd Training Squadron started the initiative which involved 37th Training Wing military and civilian members spending the morning at various gates letting each person know that they stand together in support of those struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide by holding a positive message of support and handing out over 400 candy canes.

Pentagon --

Technical Sgt. Daniel Rakowski knows what it feels like to lose a friend to suicide and never wants to experience it again.  In 2012, a friend who had recently separated from the Army died by suicide. Rakowski saw firsthand how the Soldier’s death so deeply affected those around him – his family, his friends and Rakowski himself.  At the time, Rakowski said, neither he nor other acquaintances had asked their friend about his mental state.

Four years after his Army friend died, Rakowski had an opportunity to intervene with another friend, this time a fellow Airman, who was struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. 

“Stephen and I were Airmen together for a little bit. I was a Senior Airman when he first got in. So we worked together and developed a mentor/mentee role during that time.”

After making Staff Sergeant, Rakowski deployed and then returned to his installation to become Stephen’s supervisor. Since he already had a rapport with the Airman, the transition from peer to supervisor was somewhat easy. He was also able to recognize when the Airman’s behavior and demeanor began to change, which it did soon after Rakowski’s return. 

“It started out the typical route. There were a couple of identifying attributes that something was wrong. He was showing up to work late, just a couple of minutes, and wasn’t being himself. It wasn’t like he became a poor performer or anything. He was still getting his work done. There was just something that was a little bit off,” Rakowski said.  

Rakowski stayed engaged with his Airman but said it was still very difficult to ask what he described as that very awkward question. The slight infractions and differences in behavior seemed minor at the time, but got progressively worse. Finally, after a week of repeated lateness, Rakowski pulled him aside for a more frank discussion.

“There was a lot of dancing around subjects, trying to avoid it, until we got to – well are you depressed? Once I finally asked the question, he was able to open up to me,” Rakowski said.

After talking with his supervisor, they came up with a plan of action for the Airman which included walking him to the Chaplain’s office.

“I went over to the chapel with him and basically let him know he wasn’t going to go through any of this alone. I walked him in there and sat outside and waited for him,” Rakowski said.

Despite these efforts and the support of his immediate leadership, Stephen continued to struggle with depression over the next several months. Rakowski recognized he needed further help, but both he and Stephen worried about perceived negative consequences from going to the mental health clinic. 

Rakowski readily admits he didn’t fully understand the process at the time - nor did Rakowski’s supervisor. But the decision to get his Airman to mental health was finally made for him when he found Stephen in his garage, firearm in hand. 

 “We had the benefit of living on the same street in base housing. It was after work one day and there was just something wrong.  Something just didn’t seem right. It wasn’t settling well,” Rakowski said.

So Rakowski spoke with another Staff Sergeant who was a good friend of Stephen’s and had also been helping him through his depression. They both agreed something didn’t seem right. 

“I tried to call him – he didn’t answer and that was a little weird because like I said it was the end of the duty day.  We left work at the same time, we live in the same area. And so I just ended up going over to his house,” Rakowski said.

Rakowski found his Airman perhaps just moments before he would try to take his own life. By the Airman’s own admission, he had planned the suicide a couple of weeks in advance. 

“I found him there. We talked.  There were some tears shed, I think, all around. And that’s when we had the conversation where I basically told him we need more help.  And it was a ‘we’ thing like I can’t help you any further on my own or with my supervisor. And, I had to basically give up that control that I thought was helping him all this time – to help keep it in close hold without other people and leadership or the squadron knowing.  But we decided to make that phone call,” Rakowski said.

That was a turning point for both men. Rakowski said he had reached the conclusion that if he didn’t help, then who would, and would it be in time?  Rakowski said he asked himself those questions for a while, and regrets not acting sooner to get Stephen the mental health services he needed. 

“I can readily admit I put off asking if he was depressed before the day where he really was going to go through with the suicidal ideations,” Rakowski said. 

As a friend and supervisor, Rakowski said he was afraid there would be no turning back after having the tough conversation.  Would his Airman continue to trust him?  The alternative might be worse. He’d already lost one friend to suicide.  

“I didn’t want to miss something wrong, either.  It goes back to when a really good friend of mine took his life,” Rakowski said. 

Before his Army friend’s death, questions over depression and mental health never came up.  From talking with other friends, Rakowski said, those questions never came up from anyone. Now, Rakowski says he finds it easier to have early interventions with people, having more open conversations and talking about their feelings.  

 “I think most people at certain points in their life have some sort of, at least, mild depression where they are just not motivated or something goes wrong in life and they don’t know how to handle it. Now I can express to people that I’ve been there.  I’ve been with people who have been there.  We can talk about these things,” Rakowski said.

Although he’s now comfortable referring resources to his Airmen, including mental health, Rakowski said there’s always room for improvement.

“I think we’ve seen with the uptick in suicides in 2019, there’s never a point where we can rest with this. And I think it’s also hard because every few years we’re dealing with a culture change with who is going to be coming into the Air Force and how were they raised differently.  So what worked for me when I came in ten years ago is not going to work for someone who I’m now bringing in ten years later,” Rakowski said,

Rakowski said leaders need to be open-minded when it comes to being able to identify with people and help close the gaps of communication. Despite the current environment brought on by COVID-19, heart to heart talks can still take place by phone or video chats. 

“It’s just so easy to hide raw emotions,” Rakowski said.  

“It’s not until we actually sit somebody down for a long period of time and get more of an interpersonal relationship developed that we can find that.”

Rakowski said the biggest takeaway for him is that it’s never going to be perfect.  He admits making mistakes along the way but they – his Airman, his leadership and himself – got there by working together. Build trust, talk to people, bring people in and don’t try to shoulder everything yourself.  It’s a lesson Rakowski learned the hard way and now hopes to help others learn the same lesson before they actually need it.
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If you or someone you know is in distress, look to the Resources Matrix on the Resilience website (https://www.resilience.af.mil/prevention-tools/) to help you find appropriate support, or contact Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647. In an emergency, call 911 or the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.