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No Airman left behind: Life after suicide

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- As a "rainbow flight" member on day zero in basic military training, Airmen are taught the wingman concept. From a brand new lieutenant or an airman basic to a four-star general or chief master sergeant, the Air Force indoctrinates this concept, which symbolizes a person who becomes a rock during uncertain times, a caring heart or maybe an extra set of hands to help get the job done. For most, this means there will always be someone there during a hardship.

But what happens if that person, the only person who has helped or cared, takes their life?

This was one Schriever Airman's reality after waking up July 20, 2010, the day after 1st Lt. Mark Moret, 4th Space Operations Squadron satellite vehicle operator, committed suicide.

"I woke up doubting myself," the Schriever member said. "You wonder why they didn't come to you, you wonder why you're here, why you're still breathing, living - when there was a fine example of a person who ended it all. He would always come to me about anything. So I wondered why he didn't about this."

The two Airmen met at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., during the Air and Space Basic Course. They shared a cowboy mentality and a mutual love for Ford Mustangs.

"I saw him in a parking lot and he was driving a really cool 1989 mustang 5.0 LX, an old souped-up cop car. I told him I had a 5.0 under the hood of my truck back home and I couldn't keep it on the road because the back end was too light and it would spin out."

During the next few weeks of ASBC they fished, hunted and learned to be new lieutenants together.

"Here was something that I had heard so much about the Air Force having is support, and I finally found the first guy in the entire year and a half that I had been in the Air Force that was an absolutely genuine, nice guy who had my back," the Schriever Airman stated.

Months later, Lieutenant Moret was assigned to Schriever along with his wingman but, his wingman was soon tasked to deploy.

"I went to Iraq, and when I came back, I noticed both he and I were different," the Schriever Airman lamented. "I was trying to give him some space to get through his issues, because I was trying to help myself get back into the swing of things. I was having bad dreams, and difficulty dealing with being back. It was a very confusing time.

The Operation-Iraqi-Freedom veteran leaned on his wingman, pressing through initial Post Traumatic Stress Disorder signs knowing that he always had his friend.

On July 18, 2010, the Schriever Airman, Lieutenant Moret and Lieutenant Moret's wife sat down for dinner. This was the last time the return deployer saw his best friend alive.

"I raised my glass and said, "Hey, man - thanks for having my back for the past three years and thanks for being my support system. Thanks for proving me wrong when I thought the Air Force was the worst place in the world, that you helped get my head on straight, through rough times after my deployment and you helped me meet cool people, that you helped me stop worrying about people so much and teaching me to enjoy my job. Thank you," he said.

The next day Mark was gone.

In the weeks following Mark's suicide, life became physically and mentally impossible for the Schriever Airman.

"During the next few months I lost all of my back teeth; I had to get dental implants from grinding my teeth and throwing up constantly. I wanted to be everything to everybody but I was so tired. You start feeling down on yourself but that you have to maintain a standard and put on a happy face for the people who ask how you are doing but, it eats you up inside like battery acid," the Schriever Airman said. "You don't sleep, have cold sweats... it was the type of thing that makes you not want to be around people. You're going through hell to make it through the funeral but you think that the family is going through worse so, you put on a dog-and-pony show and push through."

The stress caused by his wingman's death had become overwhelming and thrown his life into a tailspin. He was falling fast and needed to make a move.

"At one point or another, it doesn't matter how much of a work machine you are - you break down," The Schriever member said. "I finally talked to my supervisor. I looked at him one day and said, 'I can't take it anymore. I think I have a problem. I really need help.'"

What happened next astounded him.

"The Air Force became my wingman," he said. "You hear all the Air Force briefings that tell you to self identify and nothing will happen. I didn't believe it because I'd heard the same thing over and over again... it seemed fake. But, here I am. I still have my job and I still have a security clearance."

Schriever leadership immediately took the broken Airman to a Military Family Life Consultant.

"I self identified and was immediately seen by a Military Family Life Consultant who assesses your situation and points you towards the proper treatment," he said. "They're like an emergency medical technician -not a doctor but they have an idea of what's going on and can get you to someone who will help. So, they tell you that you can pursue certain avenues including mental health or off-base practitioners. They also give you a choice on therapy - they actually asked me if I wanted to be medicated, and I chose not to be."

The Schriever Airman chose to seek off-base counseling, including joining a support group through the Veteran's Administration, that put him in touch with others who had gone through a similar tragedy.

"I was able to talk to other people who had dealt with their comrade, husband or wife committing suicide," he said. "I was able to trade stories and realized that I wasn't alone."

According to officials with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention this Schriever Airman is not alone, service members and veterans are identified as a high-risk group. They were added because of their increased suicide rates.

Although he hasn't finished healing, he knows that he'll always have a wingman with the Air Force.

"I would not be able to get through without the help of the Air Force. They were like a phone book that got me in touch with the people who I needed to help me immediately. I had a real answer within 10 minutes. It was as if I was back downrange... I could call someone and they were there. There was no static in the communication, it was crystal clear."

Editor's note: The interviewee will remain nameless due to mission requirement sensitivity. This is the first story in a three part series.