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It only takes one minute

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Daniel Libby
  • 375th Medical Support Squadron
Many years ago, when I was a young Airman, I had the sad misfortune of witnessing the tumultuous aftermath when one of our own committed suicide.

I was only four months into my first assignment at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., where I served as an information manager to the 341st Comptroller Squadron, when the event took place. Like all single first term Airmen, I resided in the dorms. Thanksgiving weekend was fast approaching and many of my colleagues were making plans to head home to spend the long weekend with their families and friends. I didn't have a vehicle, nor did I have enough money for a plane ticket back to southern California where all my family was gathering to spend the Thanksgiving holiday, so I was alone, on base. To pass the time, I went to the Exchange, purchased a VHS player, and rented some films from the local video rental store. Armed with a selection of action adventure films, I closed myself in my room with my chow hall "grab-and-go food" and began my movie marathon.

The dormitories I resided in were setup in pairs of rooms adjoined by a bathroom. We had two Airmen to a room, four Airmen to a bathroom and I had the entire place to myself, or so I thought. I didn't really know the guys on the other side of the bathroom, except for the occasional head nod on the stairs. As my long weekend ticked by, I remember a distinct odor began emanating from my bathroom. I attacked the odor by giving the bathroom a full and thorough cleaning; there were four young men sharing the same bathroom, after all. After a couple hours of cleaning, I returned to my movie marathon. The day after I shined the commode, the smell was back and it was getting worse. I knew then it wasn't a result of a dirty bathroom, after all I was the only person using it. I thought the drains were messed up. It wasn't until Monday night, when my suite mates returned that I learned the true source of the smell.

Monday night, just after evening chow, I returned to my dorm to find security forces, the fire department, and Office of Special Investigations filling the hallway on the second floor of my dorm. Many of them were crowded in the doorway of my suite mates. It was then that I learned that one of them had taken his own life. His body was just on the other side of the bathroom door--he was the source of the odor. As it turns out, that Airman hung himself after his roommate departed on Thursday night preceding the four-day weekend. I felt a devastating wave of guilt, nausea, and sorrow that eventually became regret. Regret for not knowing him. Regret in thinking that had I known him, I could have possibly prevented his self-inflicted death. Those helpless disturbing feelings had a profound impact on my life. From that moment on it changed the way I interact with people.

Since that tragic event nearly 20 years ago, I've made it a matter of principle to get to know my neighbors and colleagues alike. Like many of you reading this article, I've come in contact with several Airmen over these past 20 years who were in despair, who were flirting with the idea of suicide. However, none of them actually carried it out. The reason is simple; I got to know them enough to know when something was wrong, and that I needed to engage with them. I was hesitant at first, but as I practiced, it got easier and easier. The formula for getting to know those around you is simple, and it only costs you one minute of your time. That's it, one minute a day. In one minute of face to face discussion, you can learn a lot about a person. For instance, you can learn about their families, their hobbies, their fears, their joys, their defeats and their victories.

The one-minute process goes like this: first, initiate conversation by greeting the individual, asking how they are doing, and ask them a couple more questions such as, "what did you do this weekend?" or, "what are you going to do this weekend?" Pick a topic and get the person talking, after all, the common human being's favorite topic of discussion is not politics or religion, it's themselves. So get them talking. Second, you need to listen to what they actually say and make every effort to commit it to memory. One way to help you commit it memory is to paraphrase what they say back to them. Once the discussion is done, find a natural stopping point, thank them for their time, and go about your day.

The next time you run into that person, perhaps the next day, or a week later, repeat the process, but this time, depending on the information they shared during your previous discussion, make an attempt to follow up with them. For instance, if you found out the individual planned to attend a concert, ask them how the concert was. You will be surprised at their reaction. In most cases, people are surprised that you remembered what they said and that you followed up on it.

You see, aside from the conversation, there is more taking place in that one minute. In that minute, you are building rapport; you are conveying to the other person that you care about them, and they will know that they are valuable to you. At the same time you are learning how they carry themselves and how they express themselves on a regular basis. Even if you are not consciously studying it, you will pick up on their normal body language, and you'll know when they deviate from it. Have you ever looked at someone and instantly realize they are having a bad day?

Several times over my career I've come across a person who I realized is having a bad day and that's when I start digging. Some call what I do "intrusive," but that's just people on the outside. They are not the ones who I've spent a minute a day with--the people I have a rapport with. Intrusiveness is not a factor in my conversation with my family, friends and colleagues because they know I care about them. Some of the people I've engaged who were having a bad day were actually considering suicide and by digging in and asking tough questions enabled me to get them help. All of them are alive today--some are still in the Air Force and others are successful in their endeavors post-Air Force, and all it cost me was one minute a day.

Never again will I be standing in shock as first responders and investigators canvas the scene of someone who I've had the opportunity to engage with because that person didn't have anyone to intervene. Perhaps if I had spent one minute a day with my suite mate, the two of us would have been watching action films over that four-day weekend 20 years ago. Perhaps I'd be attending his retirement ceremony or a promotion for him.

My challenge to you is this: the next time you think you're too busy to talk with a person who passes in and out of your path during the day because you too busy trying to read the text messages on your smart phone or because you are too focused on meeting suspenses--stop. Take one minute and say hi. That one minute you invest may be the difference between building a ready, healthy community or a person feeling so alone and isolated in the world they choose suicide. It only takes one minute.