2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog (Part IV)

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Editor’s Note: The mission of the USX 2018 Denali Expedition is to gather research data to assist the science and medical communities in understanding how the human body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic systems change with acclimatization. This data will be harvested using Cardiac Insight’s wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors during a summit expedition of Denali, North America’s highest peak, by USX’s team of military members and veterans from May 14-June 5, 2018. The team includes Alaska Air National Guard Lt. Col. Ron Oliver (pictured at far right). Here’s his story:

I’ve been fortunate enough to have what most people would consider an incredible career in the military. I’m a former A-10 pilot and still am at heart. I currently fly a KC-135 with the Alaska Air National Guard. I’ve led Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a Detachment Commander for the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron at Fort Wainwright. I’ve always been surrounded by men and women who understand what brotherhood is all about. We deploy together, sleep in shitty tents or plywood B-huts together, and fight and sweat together. We’ve supported each other through any possible scenario that could be dreamed up and know there will always be someone there to back us up … until depression or anxiety takes over and you feel isolated.

On May 14, 2015, I lost a good friend, TACP, and member of my small detachment to suicide. I received the phone call at my desk. This experience taught me a great deal in the last three years about myself and my influence on others. Hopefully I can take this conversation away from what you’d expect to see — “the signs and symptoms of someone struggling with suicide” — and turn it into a way to ensure that you have a positive impact on the people with whom you interact. Chances are, even if you’ve been trained, you won’t recognize someone that’s struggling until you receive a phone call.

Our unit met together. We armchair quarterbacked, knew what to look for, and still no one had picked up on any signs. We went so far as to suppose that he knew what we knew, and did specific things to hide his intent. There were long term plans, future purchases being pre-arranged, and nothing that would indicate he planned to end his life. How can you combat what you can’t see?

After some soul searching and trying to figure out what I could do as a leader, it became obvious. The majority of people contemplating suicide have an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. Be there for the person you suspect. Even more importantly, be there for the person you don’t suspect. I resolved to make a conscious effort to have genuine and positive interactions with anyone I make contact with. “Hey man, what’s up?” with a quick head nod became “How are you today?” with a brief but not uncomfortable amount of eye contact. You’d be surprised at how many people respond with an actual answer versus the obligatory, “Pretty good,” and continue on their way.

Additionally, you can Do Something. Numerous studies show that physical activity effectively combats stress, depression, and anxiety. Working out with a friend or acquaintance fights isolation. I’m always in search of the next person to go with on a run, hike, ride, swim, etc. They may never take you up on the offer, but they’ll know that the offer stands.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out. If you know someone that is going through a rough time, have them over for dinner. Go grab a beer and have a genuine conversation. Be empathetic: try to understand their feelings rather than simply being sympathetic of their situation. Any or all of these actions could be the small act that helps someone get through another day.

I still struggle with knowing that I could very well have missed a subtle cry for help from a friend. I take solace in knowing that my future actions may prevent a future suicide and I’ll never know it.

Lt. Col. Ron Oliver, 41, is an active duty member of the Alaska Air National Guard and Director of Operations, 168th Air Refueling Squadron, 168th Wing, Fairbanks, AK. He is from Jacksonville, FL, and currently resides in North Pole, AK. Oliver is a graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, Jacksonville, FL (1994), and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (1998), and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) and Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (2005, 2012-13). He is also a proud member of national veterans service organization Team RWB's Fairbanks, AK chapter.