JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
According to The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, suicide is the leading cause of death in the U.S. military, surpassing accidents, car crashes and combat. Although veterans make up only 10 percent of the population, they account for nearly one in five suicides in the country.
Staff Sgt. Drake Dougherty, an inbound cargo supervisor assigned to the 437th Aerial Port Squadron, almost became part of that statistic, but instead, chooses to share his journey to overcome depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts with others which he believes makes a positive impact not only on his life, but on the lives of those with whom he shares his story.
Dougherty explained how the way his personality was shaped as a child started to have a negative impact on his life.
“Growing up, I didn’t learn how to appreciate accomplishments, and that’s what triggered a lot of my depression,” said Dougherty. “I always had a very pessimistic and passive aggressive personality. People would be having a great and positive day and I was just there. I was just living to see the next day while other people were planning ahead in life. I never really had a plan so I just took it day by day.”
Dougherty recalled how his past negative experiences were triggered by the end of a relationship with someone who meant a lot to him. That started his spiral into anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I have a lot of past trauma with my father,” said Dougherty. “He was very abusive and I grew up with a chip on my shoulder because I didn’t feel worthy and I felt like I was never enough. It felt like all the people that meant something to me in my life always found their way out of my life. My dad didn’t really want to be there for me, my grandfather committed suicide. He was like my father figure while growing up; and then the person I was in a relationship with, which was someone that I cared about a lot, no longer wanted to be with me.”
Dougherty said when his relationship ended, it added to the feelings of being unworthy and undesired. It introduced additional negative emotions and thoughts into his life.
“I felt like everything I had done in my life was for nothing because I didn’t really have anything to show for it.” He recalled.
Dougherty said at first, he was concerned about the possible repercussions that admitting to having suicidal thoughts could have on his career. He found that if you are willing to work on recovering, the outcome will more than likely be a favorable one.
“The stigma from admitting to suicidal thoughts is still there,” said Dougherty. “I think that when people want to get help, they are worried about the repercussions. I think that if you are honest with yourself and honest with getting help, it’s only going to benefit you. I was scared at first. I was scared that this would negatively impact my career or that I would get pushed out of the Air Force, but as long as you put the work in and you want to change and you want to get better, you’re going to get better. They will see that. They will see you are still an asset to the Air Force.”
Dougherty said he chose to reach out to his supervisor, Master Sgt. Albert Romain, a section chief and mentor assigned to the 437th APS.
“He was the only person that was outside of everything who I knew to call,” said Dougherty. “He has a very unbiased opinion of everything so I knew I could go to him and he would tell me what I need to do. He went above and beyond what is expected of a supervisor to make sure I got the help I needed.”
Dougherty expressed his advice to supervisors when it comes to handling situations similar to his own.
“Be vulnerable while listening to that person’s story,” said Dougherty. “Your job isn’t necessarily to fix the problem, your job is to listen and be there for them and then get them help.”
Dougherty went on to say that is exactly what his supervisor did for him.
Dougherty said the Air Force rugby team, which he has been a part of for a year, also helped him through his challenging time. His teammates weren’t aware of what he was going through but his coach, Theo Bennett, was there for him and often reached out from time to time to check on him.
“What I learned at rugby camp helped me get through a lot of my issues,” said Dougherty. “Our coach preached mindfulness in having a purpose outside of the sport. He said we should have something that drives you to want to not only be a better rugby player, but also a better person.”
Dougherty believes that although what he had to go through was very difficult, it made a positive change in his life.
“I’m happy that it happened,” said Dougherty. “It took me down a dark path, but I needed it to happen in order for me to bury all those things that happened to me and to be able to move forward. I learned how to embrace past experiences as learning experiences. I learned that your past self is not who you are anymore and if people judge you for your past then that is their problem. I dealt with a lot of issues with letting my past define me and letting my upbringing define me, but really the only thing that defines me is me and what I do moving forward. The most important thing I learned was that I’m not alone. You never know how many other people are hiding behind a smile. Once I was able to put some of my past behind me, I was able to start appreciating things that I have accomplished. I started finding my self-worth again. I started realizing that I am a worthy person. I am worthy of being here and worthy of living life.”
Dougherty explained that when he returned to his unit after a couple months treatment, he felt welcomed back.
“A lot of people asked where I was at,” said Dougherty. “People were told I was on leave and taking care of things, which was fine. I wanted my privacy respected, but a lot of my peers know me very well so I got them all together on a Friday and told them my story. I told them that it is real and anyone can go through it. Don’t ever think you can’t be a victim.”
Dougherty believes that sharing his story has had a positive impact on those with whom he works with.
“I think it has opened up a lot of conversation in our flight,” said Dougherty. “We talk about mental health all the time. We talk about how to get through tough times, how to set goals and how to make sure you’re moving forward.”
Dougherty thinks having feelings similar to the ones he had could be more common in the military because a lot of military members come from similar backgrounds and have similar experiences.
“Everybody has their own story, but I think a lot of us joined the military because were kind of lost,” said Dougherty. “We don’t have a clear direction in life, or maybe we had direction in life and life took a left or right turn and you have to find something to get you back in line. I think that’s a very common thing in the military, we’re all just trying to find a commonality with the people you work with and we all want to feel included. It’s hard to get everyone to mesh when they’re not willing to open up and be vulnerable and share stories.”
Dougherty believes that opening up and being vulnerable with one another plays a key part in getting people to feel like a team and work together
“I feel like, if people share more of their stories, you realize you have a lot more in common with people around you and you can come together and get through life together,” said Dougherty. “Life is not meant to be lived alone. The military lives and breathes off teamwork and feeling included. I think this is the easiest way to get people on the same page.”