The night I met Airman Leonard Reh was his last on earth. He died 25 years ago this fall. His death is tragic and the basis for some of my own struggles still to this day.
I was a brand new 2nd Lieutenant working in Security Forces at Grand Forks Air Force Base, the ranking officer on nights somehow. A call came over the radio around 2 am that there had been a shooting in the dorms. When I arrived the ambulance was already on scene working on Airman Reh in the courtyard. He didn’t make it. I later learned that his girlfriend broke up with him that evening. He called his father and then shot himself.
The scene was horrific. It was late summer and the mosquitoes were swarming. Some of the medical personnel were given time off work because they were literally eaten alive in the presence of so much blood. The next morning I was asked by my commander to be his summary court officer, the person in charge of returning him and his belongings back to his family. The following three and a half months were filled with the responsibilities of that duty.
I was handed the keys to his dorm room the following day. The room reeked from the shooting. There were flies everywhere. There was no one to clean it up and I had a job to do. I cleaned all of the body fluids from the walls and got the assistance of a couple of other young airmen to move his couch to the dumpster. I still shudder at what happened that night and the day following.
I saw him on the table after his autopsy. I collected his medals and uniform for the casket. I helped decide whether it could be an open-casket funeral based on how well his glasses covered up the entry wound and how swollen his face was. I spent hours in his dorm room and reviewing personal family videos to ensure nothing sensitive to the government and related to his time deployed in support of the first Gulf War would get out. I gathered and inventoried every personal item he owned.
His Dad called me daily in the guise of wanting updates, but I could tell it was mostly to talk…to connect to someone from the place his son was last alive. The irony was I had only been on the base myself a couple of months. He later came to visit and told my commander that while he lost a son he felt he had gained a daughter. I was just a few years older than his son.
Suicide is the great big terrible awful. I have survivor’s guilt even complaining about my role in attempting to honorably respect this young man and his service to our country. While his death didn’t seem to be combat-related, Grand Forks is an isolated, cold, and lonely place. I can certainly connect with much of what he must have felt that night.
I share this story in an attempt to spread awareness and curb or perhaps maybe someday stop this pattern. Veterans commit suicide at a rate twice that of civilians—20 a day! For female veterans, the rate is 2.5 times that of their female civilian counterparts.
Today, in addition to teaching at the college, I teach yoga and mindfulness to veterans recovering from traumas both similar and dissimilar to mine My goal is to provide a space for individuals like me to find support—a space to realize even in the aftermath of war or other challenging military experiences that peace and acceptance can be found. And just like mindfulness, there we all connect with the reality that acceptance is a “practice,” never finished and constantly sought—daily, hourly, and often one minute or even one breath at a time.
Gina Swanson is a Sociology Professor at PPCC.