During the latter part of my naval career, I was stationed in Bethesda, Maryland. I was the Senior Enlisted Advisor of some 117 enlisted personnel there. One of the people who worked for me was a guy named Randy. He had transferred from California on what we call a swap. Little did I know at the time of his transfer is that he would be one of the topics of conversation in my life years later. Little did I know at the time also is that he would alter how I felt about suicide to this very day.
Randy was what we in the Navy would called a 4.0 sailor. He wore impeccable uniforms, as if he stepped out of the Blue Jackets Manual. He wore very neat haircuts, his shoes were spit-shined every day, and he was easy to get along with in the workplace. In fact, everyone liked him. And he was always, always a very good and capable worker. Randy was what you would call a supervisor's dream, yet he had his faults, but who's perfect.
One particular day, four days before his death, a friend and fellow shipmate walked into my office and informed me that he, Randy, and others had been eating lunch in the cafeteria and Randy had be talking strangely. I asked the young man about what and he said that if he didn't know any better, he thought that he was talking about committing suicide. I asked him why did he get that impression, did he actually say that or did he use other words to suggest that that was what he meant. The young man implied that he use the phrase, "I wonder what its like on the other side."
It was indeed a very busy day for me, reports to read, evaluations to write, and meetings to attend so I continued to do my work and promised to take care of Randy later in the afternoon. About fifteen minutes later two more people whom had sat with Randy entered my office and expressed the same concerns about Randy. By the expressions on their face, I knew that they were very concerned and that I felt that this required immediate action. I got up went to his workspace, entered and gently close the door. I asked Randy was there anything wrong and did he want to talk. Almost immediately he began to go off about everything and as I sat there for almost an hour listening to him I realized that this was out of my area of expertise. I suggested that he should go to the emergency room and ask to see a doctor. He was quite agitated and he told me no! Quite frankly I was stunned because I had never seen him like this. Usually he was quite and reserved, but not today! Having heard him tell me no several times, I issued him a direct order to go and he still said no. I immediate walked out into the hallway and motioned for three sailors who were walking toward me to escort Randy to the emergency room. I also instructed them that whatever they did, do not leave him unattended until they were properly relieved by a doctor. They did just that. I informed the Commanding Officer and the Command Master Chief as to my actions and continue with the other responsibilities until I was called to the emergency room around six o'clock. Having explained his behavior to the doctor and what was said by his shipmates along with their concerns and my own. I then left and went home.
It is Navy policy that if you bring an individual to the emergency room under those conditions, they are automatically taken to the psyche-ward for a 72 hours observation. The next morning as I was stood in the main Rotunda talking with the Captain who's department that Randy works, to my surprise there stood Randy about 25 feet away from us. Believe me, I was shocked! He walked up and I asked him how did he get off the ward so fast and what did the doctor say. He said that he never went to the ward and that he was feeling better. He came to my office and demanded to see the Commanding Officer. It was his right and I told him to go to work and I would inform him as to what time that would be. I immediately called the Master Chief and told him what was going on and he ask arranged to talk to Randy later in the day, I imagined that it was to do his own assessment of Randy. My words were, "Master Chief, there is something wrong, but I'll let you see for yourself and then you tell me." That afternoon, we entered the Master Chief's office and from the time that we sat down until we left (2 hours later), Randy walked and talked about everything. Five minutes into sitting down, the Master Chief look at me and I at him and we both knew that this was not the young man that we knew. The Master Chief suggested that he go back to see a doctor and he said that he would. In the mean time I informed my chain of command that I was going to move him from his present workplace and put him in a less demanding place and under a supervisor. Everyone agreed.
The next few days I saw Randy several times. I asked had he made an appointment with the doctor and he said that he was trying and he assured me that he would get in. This was on a Friday and little did I know, this would be my last time seeing Randy alive. The very next day Randy jumped off a 16th story building in Rockville. I did not find out about this until that Sunday morning when I came back in town and stopped by my office. I was told by a member on duty that everyone was upstairs in Headquarters and that they were looking for me since yesterday. The Commanding Officer ordered me to take care of everything since he worked for me. I can tell you that this was not a fun job. While inventorying his belonging, it was hard to think about anything else but, "why did he do it". It was also very hard because I had to look into his private letters and things to try and find an answer because he left no suicide note. The Naval Investigative Service (NIS) was involved; they wanted as much information as they could get. I spent six hours in that room along, it such a weird feeling! Afterward, I went to my office and began to write my own report.
About five days later, his body was released from the Baltimore morgue. He was sent to a funeral home to prepare him for his final journey home. I was instructed to take him home to Pennsylvania and it was also something that I wanted to do. Through I was tired, I remember quite well the experience of seeing Randy in his casket, so unreal! His neckerchief was tied wrong because it was not in a square knot. As I leaned over in the casket, my face not 15inches from his while tying the knot, I had a weird feeling that this was not right. His disfigurement was so bad and he clearly did not look like himself. When we got to National Airport, it was raining and I was standing outside the aircraft while they were loading his body into the cargo bay. I keep saying to myself, " this was not way to go home, what a waste! The flight was not bad. The funeral director was there, we introduced ourselves, load his casket into the hearse and proceeded to his hometown.
Upon arriving they took Randy to the embalming room, opened the casket and found that because of the high attitude some of the fluids were leaking and I stood there and watched. I was not prepared for what was to come next, his family! What I remember most that evening was his grandmother and his father. What sad eyes! They wanted answers that I could not give. Not because I was told not to answer, but because I really did not know. I told them that Randy was a outstanding sailor and that he was a joy to work with, but that is not what they wanted to hear. I explained the chain of events in his life for the two weeks before his death. He was under some pressure because he had not been promoted as he had expected to be. He missed that promotion be less than two points. I told them that he had found a misspelled work in Webster's dictionary and that he had wrote to them about this and that he had shared with me their response to his letter. They agreed that it was a mistake but they would do nothing to correct it because of the cost. He did seem upset about it, but that was Randy. When things wasn't exactly right he would get upset. To see how hard that they were grieving, it made everything very hard. To be quite honest, it hurt. His funeral was the next day. He was buried with full honors. Though I don't remember that much of the funeral, I do remember the ceremony at the cemetery. Because Randy's parents were divorced, I had to present each of them a flag. And I still remember saying to each of them, " On behalf of a proud Navy and a grateful nation, the President of the United States send his regrets. We present this flag to you in memory of your son's outstanding service to his country…" The firing of the guns as they played tabs especially affected his family. I remembered thinking with tears in my eyes, "This is so sad, they have lost their son and they do not know why and neither do I." I could tell that they were angry, very angry and there was nothing that I could do! I forgot to mention that a lot of his shipmates from my command came to share in his family's grief. To me, that within itself was a strong statement as to how much he was loved and appreciated.
Randy's death did not just affect his family. It affected all of us! I personally had to re-evaluate my own part in his dying. What made my life a living hell for about two year thereafter was the fact that when seeing Randy in the Rotunda the next day, I felt that I should have followed my gut feeling and escorted him back to the emergence room. I second-guessed myself and that created a lot on guilt. I had never lost anyone that work for me and I must tell you that I took it very hard. As time went on I began to sort things out for myself and now everything is ok. As for his friends and family, I know that his friend recovered too, they worked for me and they went to counseling. His father continued for the better part of two plus years to drive to Bethesda to talk to me. It was long and difficult for the both of us. Each time that he visited, I would have to stop work to that day and console his feelings, which I didn't mind. Is suicide wrong? I still don't know, but I will say this, "I can't imagine what Randy was going through, but I do know what his family, his shipmates, his friends and I went through after his death". Randy was my friend too, and I was proud to serve with him!
Lastly, the final report revealed that Randy had tried to commit suicide in California, about a year before he was swapped to Bethesda. What I did not understand is, why didn't his prior command report this at the time of his transfer? And why didn't the doctor see this in his medical record when he was escorted to the emergency room? Because of the Privacy Act, we in his command were not privy to his medical record. My final assessment of the situation was that if we had had a meeting a week or so prior to his death, we would have found that Randy dropped enough hints with several different people that he was thinking very seriously about committing suicide. The trouble was that all of the people that he told were not in the same area and they usually didn't communicate with each other on a daily or weekly basis. It was a shame, I'll miss him, we all do!