Leadership Lessons: Reach out, save a life

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- A few years ago, I met Master Sgt. Monroe (not his real name). He was quiet, reserved and had a tendency. Whenever tasked with something, he would nod and give a short acknowledgement before leaving to go about his business. To be honest, this initially left me feeling uneasy and wondering if we had a meeting of the minds and if he truly understood what had been asked of him. I quickly learned that I was flat wrong to feel this way and that his placid demeanor belied his intelligence and work ethic. He was consistently a few steps ahead of me and was already solving problems that I hadn't even heard about and many more, I'm sure, that I never did. I came to think very highly of Sergeant Monroe and, to put it bluntly, he now serves as the standard against which I measure other master sergeants.

What really set Sergeant Monroe apart, in my mind, is that of all the master sergeants I've met, he cared the deepest about his Airmen. I watched him spend countless hours getting to know his Airmen, hearing about their successes and failures, and listening to what was going on in their lives. I watched him spend even more hours training, mentoring, and helping them grow both personally and professionally. The effects of this mentorship certainly showed. Whenever it was time to select an Airman for an award, below-the-zone stripe, or other special recognition, his Airmen were always contenders. But when I look back at the years he and I worked together, the trophies and awards he and his Airmen won are mere footnotes. What remains most vivid in my mind is how his knowledge of his Airmen potentially saved one of their lives. This is that story.

Airman 1st Class Ramirez (also not his real name) was a welcome addition to our unit. He had recently married his high school sweetheart and joined the Air Force to provide a better life for him and his fledgling family. He was smart, charismatic, hardworking, and motivated and he quickly made a name for himself by taking on some NCO-level projects and earning some high-level awards. All seemed well.

Sergeant Monroe was Airman Ramirez' supervisor and he spent a lot of time talking to him, as he did with his other Airmen, and the two of them quickly formed a bond. Over time, as Airman Ramirez became more comfortable, he shared the stories of his past with Sergeant Monroe and me. Without getting into details, it's fair to say that he had a very rough and unstable childhood. After hearing the stories, Sergeant Monroe and I came to admire Airman Ramirez for overcoming the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against him to finish high school, join the Air Force, and start a new life. But for all of his optimism about the future and as put-together as his life seemed, we could tell he still carried demons from his past.

As the holidays approached, Airman Ramirez seemed genuinely excited to travel home with his wife to visit their families for a few weeks. When he returned, I asked him about his trip. He said it went well and proceeded to tell me about all the things he did and the fun he had. He left my office and all seemed well. For about two weeks, he held in the fact that his wife left him while he was home and that he had returned alone.

Given his background, Sergeant Monroe and I were worried about Airman Ramirez so we each made it a point to talk to him daily and we ensured that other Airmen in the unit were keeping him involved in off-duty activities. Sergeant Monroe also went above and beyond to invite Airman Ramirez and some of the other Airmen over to his house for dinner and to watch sports on multiple occasions, and helped him resolve some unrelated personal issues that had popped up.

The divorce was understandably tough on him, but over time things got progressively better and Sergeant Monroe and I scaled back the frequency of our conversations to their pre-divorce levels. Months later Airman Ramirez, now promoted to senior airman, became engaged to a friend from home and the two were married about a year after his divorce. All seemed well again.

I was deployed when the wedding occurred so I pulled SrA Ramirez into my office when I returned to see how he was doing and to congratulate him on the marriage. He seemed upbeat and told me that he was doing well. I took a few weeks of leave and when I returned, I passed SrA Ramirez in the hall and something didn't seem right. He told me that he was just tired and that things were otherwise alright but I wasn't convinced. So I went to Sergeant Monroe's office and asked him what was going on, to which he replied "Didn't you hear?" I shook my head and closed the door.

Sergeant Monroe told me how he had been in the middle of some paperwork when Airman Ramirez poked his head into the office and said he was heading over to the clinic. Sergeant Monroe acknowledged and Airman Ramirez went on his way. A few seconds later, Sergeant Monroe realized that he wasn't aware of a medical appointment that day and wondered what was going on. He quickly caught up with Airman Ramirez and brought him into his office and asked him what the appointment was for, to which he responded that he was heading to Mental Health. This caught Sergeant Monroe off guard so he asked why he was going there. After a few seconds of silence, Airman Ramirez said "I've been thinking of killing myself."

I can only imagine the questions that must have run through Sergeant Monroe's mind. Why now? After all, he'd survived a tough childhood, he had overcome challenges to join the Air Force, and he had made it through the dark days of his divorce. Why now, when things seemed to be going so well, was he in a state of crisis? Sergeant Monroe put his questions aside, composed himself, and together he and Airman Ramirez notified the first sergeant and then headed over the clinic together to get him the help he needed.
I have a lot of admiration and respect for Airman Ramirez for seeking help and for telling Sergeant Monroe what was going on. It took a lot of courage for him to do so and I'm very glad he did. I've kept in periodic contact with now Staff Sgt. Ramirez and when we last spoke he said things were going well and he seemed excited about the future, but I'm always left wondering the unknowable. Was he really heading to Mental Health that day? If he was, would he have stepped through the doors or left and gone elsewhere? What would he have done if he'd gone elsewhere? Even if nothing happened that day, would the thoughts have continued to haunt him? What then? What tipped Sergeant Monroe off and caused him to bring Airman Ramirez back into his office? Would he have noticed whatever it was if he didn't know him so well? What compelled Airman Ramirez to tell Sergeant Monroe that he was contemplating suicide? Would he have told him if he didn't trust him? Would he have trusted Sergeant Monroe if he hadn't spent so much time with him; if Sergeant Monroe hadn't shown that he cared?

Fortunately, Sergeant Monroe had shown that he did care deeply for his Airmen. He had spent countless hours getting to know them, hearing about their successes and failures, and listening to what was going on in their lives. He'd spent countless hours more training them, mentoring them, and helping them grow both personally and professionally. When Airman Ramirez was in crisis, he reached out to Sergeant Monroe for help. This may have saved his life.