Out of the Box
KADENA AIR BASE -- U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sophia Hayner knew in her heart she was struggling and didn’t want to be alive.
Despite her suicidal thoughts, she triaged her mental state enough to take action.
Her first act toward healing was opening up to a wingman who helped her find the support she needed. However, she then decided to cut off communication with her family. As an Airman serving her country far from home, the distance often accompanying military service lent itself to her desired isolation. Hayner didn’t know this decision would later haunt her.
As an aircraft maintainer, Hayner works in a career field consistently taking great strides toward preventing suicide amongst its ranks. Cases of suicide in the armed forces don’t necessarily correlate to the burden of serving one’s country. A study by National Institute for Mental Health revealed suicide rates among military members is comparable to civilians.
Although heroes in their own right, U.S. forces are made up of brothers, sisters, sons and daughters – real people exposed to hardships both in and out of the profession of arms.
At the age of three, Hayner’s biological father told her he’s her father, but it didn’t make him a father.
“He meant it in such a manner that anyone can father a child,” Hayner whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks. “But it takes a special kind of person to be a dad. You can’t tell that to a three-year-old and have [her] understand it.”
Abandoned but still receiving the love to carry on from her biological mother and stepfather, who later adopted her, Hayner explained she bottled up the pain and confusion her biological father’s rejection left her to bear.
She joined the Air Force just three weeks after graduating high school at the age of 17. At 18, she spoke with her biological father and received the answers she wanted, despite it triggering her first of many anxiety attacks. She forgave him and moved on.
Five years later, Hayner felt on good enough terms with her biological father to invite him to her Airman Leadership School graduation.
“For some reason, the interaction I had with him triggered my past to start unfolding and I started remembering everything I blocked out,” Hayner said.
She began therapy for the next four years and faced down the demons lodged into her subconscious.
Four years later while on the job, Hayner suffered an anxiety attack while trying to service a malfunctioning aircraft. Her leadership accompanied her to mental health.
Despite the mental health team’s efforts, she held back, too afraid to reopen her Pandora’s Box.
“That night, I went home and wanted to kill myself,” Hayner muttered under her breath. “I did not tell them I was suicidal; I wanted to overdose and take every single pill I had in my apartment or drive as fast as I can into a concrete pillar or off a bridge. I didn’t say that when I went to mental health. I didn’t say I wanted to die.”
Fortunately, Hayner had a wingman looking out for her who reached out to help. She was willing to open up to him and he listened.
“I told him everything,” she said.
The next day, Hayner told her best friend and fellow Airman what she endured the night before.
“She came with me again to my leadership and back I went to mental health to tell them the truth,” she said.
Courses on identifying warning signs are mandatory at all ranks in the military, and within those ranks exists a culture of comradery, teamwork, and looking out for one another. This culture, evident in Hayner’s wingmen’s decision to reach out to her, potentially saved her life.
Strong as those bonds may be, nothing matters more to Hayner than family. Despite being on suicide watch, she was granted leave to go home and see her sister graduate high school.
“Happy as the event may have been, I’m not perfect,” Hayner said. “My family is not perfect. But while I was home, there were things that were said despite my mental condition. At the time, my siblings were my ‘why’ – the reason why I didn’t kill myself. I love them so much.”
Hayner made the hardest decision she ever had to make for the sake of her own health. She cut contact with her family after her sister’s graduation in May 2016 until February 3, 2018.
On this day, she received a phone call from one of her three brothers.
“Benjamin is dead,” he said.
Ben, her youngest brother who was 16, went into the basement, drank an entire liter of mouthwash, and shot himself in the head. He did so while his parents and 11-year-old sister were home.
“When he got baptized he said, ‘I am not of this world; my home is in Heaven. But I’m here for a purpose, a mission to be a spokesman for God,’” Hayner remembered. “What happened to my brother is he broke after he was sexually assaulted, and it was a downward spiral from there. I don’t blame her for his suicide, but I do blame her for breaking him. He couldn’t take any of that hurt, any of that guilt, any of that shame anymore. And he took his own life.”
Hayner believes if her family had been exposed to the training she’s received throughout her Air Force career, they would have recognized the warning signs.
“He started to right his wrongs,” she said. “Things like that. His behavior had changed. Little telltale signs that he had made up his mind and was at peace with his decisions.”
The event shook Hayner to her foundation. It also imposed upon her the dread and malice she would create for her siblings if she were to succumb to her own suicidal motives.
“If you’re contemplating suicide,” said Hayner, “you don’t know how many people you’re going to be impacting when you’re gone.”
Losing Ben to the same destructive behavior she nearly fell victim to has given Hayner a clear understanding that mental illness must not remain stigmatized. She serves a purpose to change that perception. She believes that despite the hardships, they have made her stronger and who she is today.
“Being molested as a kid, having an abortion, being sexually assaulted twice during my Air Force career, and getting PTSD, depression and anxiety from the trauma… Having dealt with all that gives me the ability to relate to people,” she reflected. “I’m still here,” she said. “I’m still in the Air Force.”
Hayner said this year taught her all she’s endured and gone through is for the purpose of helping other people.
“It sucks. It’s been awful,” said Hayner. “But it’s been necessary. Not just for me, but for other people.”
The Air Force is well-equipped to handle prevention and mitigation, offering training, counseling, and so much more. Hayner, however, identifies an area for improvement: the postvention – or the healing process following an incident related to suicide – for friends and family who may experience severe mental stress following a suicide or suicidal attempt.
Hayner took action and reached out across her community to find others who share similar experiences with suicide. Hayner partnered with the Kadena Chaplain Corps and others to form the Survivors of Suicide or SOS*, a volunteer-based group with meetings on the first and third Sundays of each month.
Hayner believes phones, social media, video games and bullying are often blamed for the increase in suicide and suicide attempts, but that it’s the lack of a strong social fabric that’s really to blame. Her group aims to create a dialogue among people with similar experiences and a social foundation for others to look out for one another the same way her wingmen looked out for her when she first became suicidal.
*For more information on SOS, please reach out to the Kadena Chaplain Corps at firstname.lastname@example.org. *If you are in crisis, or know someone who is, contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, then press 1, or access online chat by texting 838255. You may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
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