Friday, March 1, 2019

Air Force Colonel lost "wingman" to suicide

Commentary: Watching out for lost wingmen

By Col. (Dr.) Bruce K. Neely
446th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander
Published February 27, 2019

There is no shame in reaching out for help, asking for help, or letting others know you are lost.


6,079. That’s the number of veteran suicides for 2016, the most recent year reported. In some ways it’s just a random number and hard to put into any type of perspective. In many ways it’s sobering, sad, disturbing and disappointing.
One. That’s the number of veteran suicides of former 446th Airlift Wing members in 2019. I’ll give you some perspective on that. It was a friend of mine. A pilot who I flew into a war with. A pilot I helped when he needed a waiver for a medical issue. A pilot who was always upbeat, encouraging and helping to others. A pilot who left behind family and hundreds of friends across the Air Force. In all ways it’s sad, disturbing, hard to comprehend, and yes, disappointing.

There will probably never be answers for the question of why people commit suicide. I deal with suicidal people at my civilian work in the Emergency Department nearly every day.

Many of them have no answer for why they are feeling that way or what led them to that point. Many feel they are a burden on others, and don’t want to go on being a burden to others.

They don’t realize the burden of helping them, be it by those of us in the hospital or by their families and friends, is nothing compared to the burden left behind if they end their own lives. That burden is much greater and felt by more people. I know that to be true from my own reaction and the reaction of others to the death of our friend.

I make it a point to ask, remind and encourage everyone to take care of the people around them, in the squadron and in the wing. That is part of being a good wingman.

But, there’s another part to being a good wingman. In the flying community there is a term called lost wingman. That call is made when the wingman loses sight or contact with the lead. The call is made because it’s a serious safety of flight issue to be lost or out of contact. The procedure is to change your direction for a short period of time and then get back into contact and back on heading. There is no shame in calling lost wingman.

So, you see the other part of being a good wingman is knowing when you’re lost, and not just in relation to flying. It’s a serious safety of life issue. There is no shame in reaching out for help, asking for help, or letting others know you are lost.

People are concerned it will end their career. It’s not an end, it’s a temporary change in direction until you can make contact and get back on the correct flight path. Remember, there’s a waiver for almost everything, except being dead. There’s no waiver for that.

Pay attention to those around you. If someone seems off, ask them what’s going on. Reach out. Be a good wingman. But if you are lost, don’t hesitate to make that lost wingman call. I don’t want to lose any more friends.

Here is a partial list of resources if you feel lost: unit commander, first sergeant, your supervisor, your flight or section chief, your flight or section officer in charge, psychological health, chaplain, emergency departments, Military OneSource ( or 800-342-9647), National Suicide Prevention Life Line (1-800-273-8255).

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