Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Natalie Williamson did not fear the worst when two U.S. Army officers appeared at her door with her father on a summer’s day in 2012.
Her brother, Miguel Gonzales Jr. of Albuquerque, was a staff sergeant in the Army, and his unit was involved in fighting wildfires that were raging in Colorado.
“I thought he was injured,” she said as she described what seemed like a scene from a movie.
The officers told her that her brother was dead, that he had taken his own life.
She was cradling her 6-week-old daughter, Sarah, in her arms when she heard the devastating news.
“I almost dropped my daughter,” Williamson said. “I couldn’t believe it. They told me they had found him. He had shot himself and that he had committed suicide.”
Gonzales, who was preparing to be deployed for the third time in his military career, was considered a model soldier, a “motivator” to his peers, his sister said. He served seven years in the Army.
His death reflects a startling trend: The suicide rate among active duty military personnel has been steadily climbing since the Department of Defense started keeping statistics in 2001 – rising an average of 6% annually for the past five years, the Pentagon announced last fall.
The number of suicides jumped from 285 to 325 nationwide between 2017 and 2018, according to the 2019 Annual Suicide Report. That is an increase from about 22 suicides per 100,000 service members to about 25. The overall suicide rate in the U.S., which has also been steadily climbing, is 14 per 100,000. The Pentagon said the military suicide rate reflects the fact that men are four times as likely to commit suicide as women. Men make up 85% of military branches and more than 49% of the general population.
And the numbers for active duty service members could be higher for 2019 if the numbers for all the service branches rise as much as in the Air Force.
“What we’re tracking across the Air Force, which includes the Guard and the Reserve, we had 136 suicides last year,” Kirtland Air Force Base installation commander Col. David Miller said. “That was about a 33% increase over the previous year. That’s a fairly substantial increase.”
Included in that number are two deaths of airmen at Kirtland in 2019, the most recent a female senior airman in her mid-20s who was found dead off base in October. There have been nine suicides among active-duty personnel at the base over the past five years.
There are more than 3,300 airmen and more than 1,000 National Guardsmen and reservists stationed on the base.
Kirtland officials said a civilian employee on the base also committed suicide within the past year, the second in the past two years.
Trends are changing
Like Gonzales, Miller said, the airman who took her life last fall did not fit the old pattern of suicides among active duty personnel.
“She was in every regard, to anybody who interacted with her, a high-spirited, high-performing, extremely successful airman,” said Miller, who did not wish to identify the airman. “She won major awards amongst her peers. She won major awards within her organization. To be honest, she was an advocate for trying to help people who were having problems that had been identified as being suicidal. She was actually out there trying to champion, help them. It was a surprise to everyone that she took her own life.”
Williamson said that was the case with her brother.
“He was full of energy, full of life,” Williamson said. “When we talked to military people he worked with throughout the years, they were just stunned. Nobody could believe it.”
Miller said suicides by active-duty personnel have often been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder or a high deployment operation schedule. But he said that is not the case with the majority of deaths in recent years.
Even the methods are changing, he said.
“Males, it used to be more violent. It was gunshots or hangings. Females, it would be more along the lines of a drug overdose or asphyxiation via car. We’re not seeing those indications anymore. What we see with current suicides is that those don’t continue to be trends,” he said. Miller said the military isn’t seeing a set pattern these days. The Pentagon reported last fall that between 60% and 70% of suicides were carried out with a firearm, and 90% of those were with personally owned weapons. And hanging and asphyxiation accounted for almost 30% of the methods used. Drug and alcohol overdoses accounted for less than 1% of suicides.
Different warning signs
“We used to see a spike in people who had some marriage issues, or some legal issues would be indicators that may have put them over the edge. We still see them as symptoms in some cases, but it’s not nearly the proportion they used to be. It’s actually a minority of people who have those issues,” Miller said.
Williamson said she and her father suspected her brother may have been in a problematic relationship in the months before he died, but they were never able to confirm it. She also said her brother had been seeing a therapist in the months before he died, but the Army would not release any information to the family because of privacy restrictions.
Williamson – a psychologist with Albuquerque Public Schools – had not seen any signs of PTSD in her brother before he took his life. But she said her brother showed signs that something might be wrong when he came home on leave just weeks before he killed himself.
Gonzales, who grew up in the South Valley, was close to his sister and her 8-year-old son, Matthew. He had previously deployed to Iraq and Qatar and requested two weeks leave before deploying again.
“I noticed that something was bothering him,” Williamson said. “He was agitated. But he was also laughing and having fun. But still, I knew there was just something that was not right.
“I asked him, ‘Why don’t you stay, why don’t you ask for another week? Just don’t go back.’ He wanted to leave early, he said, ‘No I got to go back. I’ve got to get my stuff together. I might be going out again.’ And I said, ‘Talk to me,’ but he didn’t. I knew something was up. So did my dad. He said, ‘Something is off with your brother.’ ”
Williamson had a birthday celebration for her brother, who turned 34 on June 26, during his stay. She said she was thrown off guard by the words her brother used when he was saying goodbye.
“He looked at me and grabbed my face and said, ‘Promise me that you’ll always let my nephew and niece know that I love them,'” Williamson said. “I said, ‘Of course I’m going to do that.’ He kissed me on the forehead. He told Matthew, ‘Take care of your mother.’ We just didn’t get it.”
She texted her brother on the Fourth of July but got no response. Her father tried to call his son, but Gonzales never called back.
“We thought that was pretty odd,” Williamson said.
Gonzales killed himself July 10, 2012, while stationed at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I wish now I would have told somebody,” his sister said.
But Miller said often there are no visible signs at all.
“We used to train in the Air Force, if we found someone who was withdrawing from the group they are usually with, stop participating in the events they would go to, or started giving away their possessions or start talking about how their life wasn’t worth it or they would be better off without them in their life, those were the tell-tale signs of the past,” he said. “We’re finding that with those taking their lives today, those aren’t the indicators anymore.” The challenge, he said, was finding out what those new indicators were.
The need to ‘speak out’
Williamson believes many soldiers are reluctant to seek help because they fear they will be demoted or that it will affect their service in some way.
Maj. Benjamin Carter, a clinical psychologist at Kirtland, acknowledges that may be a reason some don’t come forward.
“If somebody has concerns, they ask, ‘If I speak up, what impact will it have on my career? My unit? My co-workers?’ Those are very common concerns,” he said. “That’s always a concern that we’re working on. … Almost every time, we find that their concerns are greater than the reality. … The promise to them is that we’ll address any of those concerns.”
Miller believes the concern about making someone else do their work is even more of a factor.
“Sometimes it’s not about the individual coming forward and admitting they need help, it’s acknowledging that when they seek help, their workload is shifting to someone else,” Miller said. “They’ll think, I don’t want to take myself out to rest for a while. … If I need to take a knee – which is a military term – it’s probably not going to be short-term … When I take a knee, I just shifted my workload responsibilities over to them. … It’s almost out of love to people they serve with – they push themselves longer than they should.”
Edith Wegner, the violence prevention integrator at Kirtland, said the Air Force is working to remove the perceived stigma around airmen reporting they have a problem.
And Carter wants airmen “to speak up” if they believe they need help.
“There is a strength in asking for help,” Miller said. “It is a sign of strength to be able to ask for help.”