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Tinker man uses painful past to battle against suicides

  • Published
  • By Howdy Stout
  • Tinker Public Affairs
When 27-year-old Gordon Joel "Joey" Dunham died, his father wanted to die, too.

"I've had every emotion possible," explains Rocky Dunham, a tools and parts attendant with the 552nd Commodities Maintenance Squadron. "I had no idea what suicide was about until it touched me when my son died last year. Losing a child, a loved one, is bad enough, but when it's suicide it's tough to understand. There are no answers. And there's a stigma attached to it."

The youngest of three children, Mr. Dunham's son Joey was a proud iron worker who helped build the roof of the Ford Center in downtown Oklahoma City. But, like everyone, he had problems. And when he realized his marriage was over, Joey took his own life. For his father, it came without warning.

"My son had depression," Mr. Dunham says. "We didn't recognize the signs."

Mr. Dunham decided to do something about it.

"Since that time, I've worked on how to bring more awareness to depression," he said. "I've tried to educate people."

His own education began last September with a walk called Out of the Darkness. The event was designed to promote awareness about depression and suicide. "It was a time of healing," he said.

Through various people and organizations, Mr. Dunham said he learned about depression and what prompts people to consider suicide. For many, he says, suicide is a last resort and a way to end physical or emotional pain.

"They don't necessarily want to die," Mr. Dunham says. "They just want to get rid of the pain, physical or mental. They don't see an out."

Although one single event is rarely the cause for suicide, the cumulative effect can be. One more trouble - like the ending of a marriage - might be the straw that broke the camel's back. It's a metaphor Mr. Dunham is familiar with, having broken his own back years ago while skydiving and reaching an emotional low-point with his son's suicide.

Like a heart attack, the signs of extreme depression are visible to people if they know what to look for, Mr. Dunham says. A change of attitude, appearance or mannerisms are just some of the warning signs of depression.

But, unlike a heart attack, not everyone knows who to call for help. There are several community organizations in the Oklahoma City metro area with counselors available 24-hours-a-day.

"There are places to call," Mr. Dunham said. "There are people who care enough to talk, to try to give other options."

One of those people is Mr. Dunham. This year there have been suicides at Tinker. In one instance, Brig. Gen. Bruce Litchfield, commander of the 76th Maintenance Wing, asked Mr. Dunham to console a grieving mother.

"I didn't want to," Mr. Dunham admits. "But speaking to them about the pain helps. Not only helps them, but helps me."

Mr. Dunham also helps promote awareness of depression and suicide.

When organizers in Tulsa planned their first suicide prevention walk last year, Mr. Dunham decided to do just that -- walk.

"I felt a calling to walk to Tulsa to bring awareness," he said. Carrying the name of his son and nearly 100 others, he walked 102 miles to Tulsa to participate in the walk.

With the help of others at Tinker, Mr. Dunham also helped organize the first Suicide Prevention walk on base in May. A resident of Midwest City, he is helping organize a similar walk August 29.

"The walk is to remember our loved ones," he says. "My passion now is preaching and educating people on the signs and symptoms of suicide and depression."

He has enlisted the aid of General Litchfield to speak at the event. Mr. Dunham said he e-mailed the general "on a whim" after reading a wing-wide e-mail from General Litchfield concerning two suicides among 76th MXW workers.

Suicide prevention is a major topic not just among active duty military, but among those who support the warfighter as well. The toughest part of the battle is simply getting those who are depressed -- especially men -- to share their feelings with others.

"When it comes to depression, we put that on the back burner," Mr. Dunham says. "Especially men. We don't want to talk about problems."

It took his own son's death to come to terms with his own emotions.

"Suicide changes people," Mr. Dunham explains. "I used to not cry. I've been sharing my feelings now. It has changed me forever."

But it shouldn't take a suicide in order to share.

"There is absolutely no penalty, retribution or dishonor in asking your supervisor, co-worker or anyone else in our wing for help," General Litchfield wrote. "In fact, when someone asks for or needs help -- everything else is second priority. It's about taking care of our wing family by being exceptional wingmen."

Recently ordained as a Baptist minister, Mr. Dunham has the benefit of his own wingmen. He credits his faith and his wife with helping him cope with his son's death.

"We have been married for 31 years and we have a strong faith in Jesus Christ," he says. "That's the only way we've been able to handle this."

Nearing retirement, Rocky Dunham's life isn't what he expected. His son's death, he says, has changed him.

"It's my lot in life now," he says, looking at a picture of Joey with tear-filled eyes. "It's not what I wanted, but it seems what I've been called to do. I don't want anyone to feel the pain I feel daily. It never goes away. It never goes away."