Pope Field, NC --
When Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen Dave Goldfein, ordered all Airmen to stand down a day to focus on resiliency and suicide prevention, there wasn’t anyone happier than TSgt Christopher Abbott. Not that he needed it, but there was a day – many days – that he could have used it.
From 2002 to 2005, while stationed at Ramstein AB, Germany, then-A1C Abbott was assigned to the 723rd AMS Special Handling Flight as an aerial porter responsible for receiving and processing human remains en route to the United States. Most of the remains belonged to military members who died on duty. Although considered a normal responsibility, it was anything but.
The first sign of trouble was when he experienced difficulty sleeping, excessive drinking and anxiety. His behavior affected his personal relationships to some degree, but as the military had trained him to do, he kept pushing forward so his duty performance wouldn’t be affected.
On the surface, he was a motivated, well-adjusted Airman. In reality, he couldn’t have been further from it.
In 2004, Abbott attempted to take his life, the first serious signal that he needed help, despite previous symptoms. Turns out, had there been an Air Force-wide stand down back then, he may have seen it earlier. He was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from an accumulation of events.
“The military teaches us how to compartmentalize very well, but they don’t teach us how to unload those mental/emotional boxes,” Abbott said. Every day was a struggle, but he learned how to cope thanks in large part to mental health care and support from his leadership and peers in the Air Force.
“I’m thankful for those I’ve served with - friends, co-workers and leadership who understood the issues I encountered. I never thought there was anything wrong other than having some tough times. It was their support that made it easier on me to seek help.”
Fast forward to 2009. His professional advancement to SSgt. Abbott added two more deployments under his belt. He continued to struggle with sleep and anxiety, but compared to where he came from mentally, this became his new norm. He continued this way for years until receiving notification that his mentor was killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul. Abbott’s mood changed enormously and he began heading towards a dark place that seemed all too familiar. He slept less and drank more, which continued to worsen as the years went by.
He arrived at Pope AAF, North Carolina in 2012, where he deployed from three more times, accumulating over two years away from his wife and children. Now TSgt Abbott, he went about his daily duties as best he could, but the weight of his mental and emotional struggles worsened. Still haunted by the mental images from eight deployments, he suffered perhaps his biggest blow when he and his wife divorced.
This time, though, it wasn’t an adult that opened his eyes. It was his daughters. “I realized that not getting help had obviously taken a toll on me and my marriage. But, looking at my girls I knew it was hurting them, too.”
His love for his children trumped his urge for self-destruction. He sought help.
Along with seeing improvements in his personal relationships and re-connecting with his children, his decision to get help hasn’t had any negative impacts on him professionally. In fact, he was recently hand-selected to serve on Pope’s Inspector General Team. Earlier this year, his support of Freedom Sentinel and the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan earned him a Bronze Star.
Today, he continues to advocate for help-seeking behavior. He acknowledges that mental health can place some limitations on what someone can do, but not seeking help when you need it creates more of them. “Seeking help gives you the ability to take control and steer your career in the right direction. It’s a strength, not a weakness. Having the ability to recognize red flags in yourself enhances your ability to see signs of trouble in others, too.”
Looking back now, Abbott can appreciate those who supported him and the system created to save other Airmen from venturing down a similar path. “Through all of this, I had the best support from my supervisor, first sergeant, commander, and the mental health team. I hope everyone who needs help seeks it. I’m thankful to still be here to share that it truly does make a difference.”
Abbott is willing, able and ready to be a wingman to those in need. “Call me, email me, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m here for anyone that needs it.”
#BeThere #DoSomething #Wingman