Apparent suicide at Misawa drives dorm leaders to act
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The mandatory suicide briefings for all dormitory residents here last week hit close to home: In March, less than two months after he arrived on base, Airman 1st Class John Dyke, 21, was found dead in his base dorm.
Friends, dorm residents and others who knew Dyke say he was distraught over the break-up with his girlfriend and apparently committed suicide. Misawa officials on Friday said the official cause of death has yet to be determined.
Dyke’s death, however, prompted Senior Airman Heather Widell and Airman 1st Class Tiffany Hernandez to organize a suicide forum for all dormitory residents. The two are president and vice president, respectively, of 35th Fighter Wing’s dorm council.
Airmen are required to attend Air Force suicide training about every 15 months, a mass briefing for all personnel. But Hernandez and Widell thought more might be needed for dorm residents — single, enlisted airmen for many of whom Misawa is their first duty station.
“A lot of people thought it would never happen here, they were kind of blind to it,” Hernandez said of suicide.
Misawa can be a tough duty station for first-term airmen, she said. Fresh out of boot camp, they find themselves thousands of miles from home, in a new job and a foreign country. “They don’t know what’s expected of them. Things can get overwhelming,” she said.
Hernandez and Widell put out a survey “asking dorm residents whether they would prefer more of an in-depth briefing that would help them with the signs of how to recognize someone slipping away or in distress.” The response was a resounding “yes,” Hernandez said, so “we decided to make it mandatory.”
In the past two weeks, about 700 dorm residents attended one of five separate briefings, with more than 100 filing into Richard Bong Theater on Thursday afternoon for the final one.
Maj. David Lane, who heads the Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program at Life Skills, focused his presentation on communication.
“I think the way to reach people in distress is to communicate with them,” he told the airmen. That includes being supportive, nonjudgmental, compassionate, caring and sincere.
“Do constructive probing about their situation,” Lane said. Instead of “‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ ask ‘Are you thinking of hurting yourself?’”
That question is less intense and more likely to elicit a response, he explained. Reassure the person help is available, Lane said, and know where to get it. After hours, take a person to the hospital emergency room. During work hours, go to Life Skills or the chapel, where a chaplain is on call 24 hours a day.
After the briefing, Airman 1st Class Robert McGee of the 35th Communications Squadron said the training was informative.
“But it would have been more beneficial four or five months ago because one of my friends here did commit suicide,” he said of Dyke.
Lane called friends and acquaintances the first line of defense in preventing suicide.
“If you have any doubt in your mind that they might be suicidal, make sure they get help,” he said.
Widell and Hernandez said they want to continue the forums annually, incorporating information from the Air Force mass briefings with the dorm-tailored presentation, so dorm residents don’t have to attend both.
Tips on how to effectively communicate with a friend or acquaintance in need or distress:
Focus on the person.Be nonjudgmental.Be supportive.Be compassionate and calm.Give limited advice, if any.Do constructive probing about their situation: If you suspect they may be suicidal, ask “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?”Be sincere; don’t make false promises.Reassure the person that there is help available.Know the options for help that are available.Source: Maj. David Lane, chief, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention/Treatment program, Life Skills, Misawa Air Base, Japan.