655th ISRG NCO uses personal tragedy to reach out to others

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Weston Woodward
  • 655th ISRG Public Affairs

In 2016 alone, 601 service members chose to take their own life according to a report from the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. One suicide is too many, and the military is constantly testing new and creative solutions to bring this ever-increasing problem to an end.


On July 22nd, roughly 60 participants took part in a Caring for People - Suicide Prevention Forum facilitated by the Ohio National Guard. Among the participants were members of the Ohio Army and Air National Guard, Chaplain Corps, behavioral health providers, technicians, and service member families.


One of the attendees, Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Weitz, a 655th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance superintendent, lost his own son, an Ohio Air National Guard member, to suicide in 2012. Upon his arrival, he found out that he had been appointed to speak by the lead attending chaplain.


Though Weitz was somewhat hesitant to attend the forum, he did so at the request of his squadron commander, Lt. Col. Julie Spears.


“Due to his experience with suicide several years ago, I encouraged him to go and share his deeply personal story,” she said. “He is an exceptional senior NCO and his compassion for people and mentorship within our squadron are renowned. I'm very proud that he is a part of the 655th family and stepped out of his comfort zone in order to help others see that suicide is never the right way out.”


Weitz’s story was so well-received that it generated deeper and sometimes very emotional discussions throughout the forum. During a small group discussion, one attendee opened up for the very first time about how a sexual assault incident once drove her to a suicide attempt.


“It actually worked out well that I didn’t realize that I was going to be the guest speaker,” said Weitz. “I don’t know if I would have been able to do it if I had a lot of time to think about it and prepare for it – for suicide is a deeply personal matter.”


One tool that was used in the small group discussions throughout the day was creating a “mind map” diagram and root cause analysis processes. This is a diagram that maps out different factors relating to a service member’s life and connects them together with various resources and relations while showing what the service member’s “needs” are and what “barriers” lie along the way.


“This (mind map) allowed each individual in the group to share in the process and further understand each circumstance through root cause analysis,” said Weitz. “This forum provided so much more insight into suicide through the minds of behavioral health professionals, chaplains, first sergeants, and military family members.”


The participants were divided into three equal-sized groups for breakout discussions and brainstorming throughout the day. Two of the groups were intentionally formed almost entirely of family readiness group and family members.


One of the event planners, Capt. David Kirker, Director of Psychological Health, Ohio Army National Guard, said that small groups are extremely effective in forums like this.


“The small groups keep people engaged,” he said. “In a small group discussion people are more likely to stay involved than in large group discussions because they feel the need to contribute.”


Jane Esprit, Airman and Family Readiness Manager for the Ohio Air National Guard, who also helped plan the event, stated that having families there was key.


“We encouraged open dialogue and tried to get a family perspective, not just a military point of view,” she said. “Our goal was to make sure we viewed every unfortunate situation as a family loss, not just a military loss.”


The breakout sessions early in the day focused on what the current state is and what problems we are facing now. As the day progressed, the discussions shifted the focus from the problem to the solutions. Some of the discussion topics throughout the day were needs of service members and their families, stigmas and barriers, what success looks like and what the desired end state is.  


Because members from both the Army and Air Force were present, each branch was able to see deficiencies and advantages of both branch’s programs. Members of both could then collaborate and come up with strategies going forward to tackle this problem.


“We’re a family,” Weitz said.  “Our goal needs to be for everyone to have a sense of purpose to the mission; a feeling of belonging to the team.”


Weitz hopes that this is an approach that the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard can begin to implement in the local units or regions and one day grow to an Air Force-wide suicide awareness and prevention training program. He believes that this strategy will be much more effective at combating the ever-increasing suicide rate our nation’s military is experiencing.


“This type of training is a lot more effective than the traditional briefings or computer based trainings that we have to do each year for suicide awareness,” he said. “It gets people thinking and keeps them engaged. We need to shift to a proactive strategy that looks into the root causes, not just apparent signs and stressors.”


“For most people, suicide awareness training is just another box that is checked each year,” Weitz said. “It doesn’t truly hit home until one loses a close friend or family member. With this type of training, along with other courses and programs, the military is constantly fighting to reduce the service member suicide rate to zero. One suicide is too many and it is our mission to work together to win this battle.”



The 655 Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group is dedicated to serving as the premier and most diverse ISR Group in the United States Air Force, delivering timely, reliable, accurate and actionable intelligence products enabling a decisive advantage over adversaries of the United States. The 655th consists of a headquarters and three tenant squadrons in Ohio, and 11 geographically separated units in California, Texas, Nebraska, Virginia, Florida and Maryland. For exciting and rewarding career opportunities with the 655th ISRG, please contact your local Air Force Reserve recruiter or call 937-257-8117.