by Staff Sgt. Paul Croxon
Defense Media Activity-San Antonio
8/24/2010 - SAN ANTONIO (AFNS) -- When Tech. Sgt. David Bales got the call that an Airman he supervised was drunk and talking about "ending it all," he immediately drove to the dormitory. He'd been around too many successful and attempted suicides to just attribute "ending it all" to a case of drunken rambling.
As an intelligence Airman, Sergeant Bales has worked with Airmen who have attempted suicide and some who've succeeded. Worse, he saw first-hand the toll suicide takes on the loved ones left behind when his best friend killed himself.
Intelligence is one of three career fields most at risk for suicide, said Lt. Col. Michael Kindt, the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program manager.
"When I heard this Airman was mentioning suicide and drinking, I was shocked," Sergeant Bales recalled. "She didn't have any of the textbook signs. She didn't give away her possessions or show up to work late, nothing like that. She was just a good Airman. I didn't even know she had an alcohol problem."
Sergeant Bales said that after the Airman opened the door to her room, he could tell she had been drinking heavily.
"There were bottles everywhere," he said. "The first thing I did was ask her to go outside. I wanted to remove her from that environment."
As the Airman was heading out of the room, Sergeant Bales said he noticed a bottle of pills on her counter.
After they were outside, he asked her directly how many pills were in the bottle and if she had tried or thought about hurting herself.
"She said no at first, but it's something you expect to hear when you ask that question," he said. "I felt like something else was going on, that she was just telling me what I wanted to hear, so I pressed her. Eventually she said she had thought about it."
Sergeant Bales told the Airman to get her shoes, and he took her to the hospital where doctors eventually found out she had ingested dozens of aspirin. With this clear demonstration of intent to do harm, he stuck with her.
"I stayed in the hospital with her, and when we got back to her room, I helped her dispose of the alcohol," he said. "I didn't want to leave her in an environment where she would be tempted to spiral down again. I didn't know she was having problems but I wanted her to know I was there to talk about them.
"When my friend committed suicide, nobody knew he was having problems," he said.
In this situation, Sergeant Bales employed suicide prevention techniques by removing the Airman from the environment and taking her to professionals who could help.
He said he attributes his involvement to the suicide prevention training he's learned throughout his Air Force career and to the NCO corps.
"As an NCO, we're supposed to take care of our Airmen," he said. "It's something that's ingrained in me."
Sergeant Bales was called to the Airman's dorm a second time. After 30 days of alcohol counseling, the Airman spiraled back into depression. When she called Sergeant Bales for help, he didn't hesitate. Again he took the Airman outside, removed her from the situation and listened.
"She went from asking for help to telling me she hated me," he said. "She was very intoxicated and I just let her vent. She was hurting and eventually we went back to the first sergeant and medical help."
Today the Airman is undergoing another round of alcohol counseling as Sergeant Bales prepares to retire.
Looking back on his Air Force career, Sergeant Bales said he has noticed the change in suicide prevention in the Air Force culture.
"When I came in the Air Force in 1996, I don't remember hearing anything about suicide prevention," he said. "Now (intelligence Airmen are) doing face-to-face training. I think we're on the right track. It comes down to asking the question. You don't want to know someone is hurting after it's too late."