FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. — Being part of the Air Force is not an easy task. Airmen are charged with supporting and defending the U.S. from all enemies, foreign and domestic. As a result, the military life has many stressors and responsibilities. Deployments, financial strains, intensive training, long work days and adapting to new austere environments are a few examples of the hardships some Airmen face.
However, strength, resiliency and hope are often built even in the face of those stressors. Air Force leaders often emphasize how Airmen are the most valuable asset, and those same leaders strive to ensure each Airman has beneficial care to assist with life’s challenges. While care is readily available, many service members are hesitant to discuss their challenges, due to the stigma that seeking mental health will ruin a career.
This is not always the case. Oftentimes, Airman can come forward with their mental challenges, seek assistance, and continue serving.
Tech. Sgt. Stevi Smalts, a 13-year Airman who’s served as both a security forces defender and a professional military education instructor, is a living example of resilience, medical care and supportive leadership combining to prevent suicide, rehabilitate an Airman and eventually return them to duty.
Smalts has lived a life where stress has come in many forms. With two deployments under her belt, she experienced daily mortar attacks and witnessed gruesome post-attack scenes as a first responder. On top of that, she’s endured two divorces and watched, traumatically, as her eight-day-old daughter took her last breaths while Smalts embraced the infant. From those terrible experiences, she started to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
Those after-effects eventually led to suicidal thoughts and recently, she almost went through with it. Yet in her darkest moments, and feelings of hopelessness, she began to think of the ones she loved and who loved her.
“I thought about my funeral, and over 400 students I taught in front of for four years. I thought about my best friends and when it really hit me, it was my kids,” Smalts said. “I just thought about how many people would be left wondering what happened.”
The thought of taking something away from so many people and the suffering inflicted on those she loved most stopped her from going through with suicide.
Smalts immediately sought help, and since then has overcome her struggles. Through her times of despair, she wants her story told so other service members and veterans can hopefully find the strength to keep living, just like she did.
“For those that know her, she has done an enormous amount of work for the Air Force,” said 1st Lt. Steven Haberkorn, 341st Security Forces Squadron flight commander. “She has given a lot [in order] to better people she barely knows.”
Haberkorn, along with Senior Master Sgt. Eric Butt, 341st SFS first sergeant, characterized Smalts as a dedicated noncommissioned officer who continuously improved the lives of those around her by dedicating herself to the development, mentorship and leadership of her Airmen.
The night of Smalts’ near-suicide, both Haberkorn and Butt were on-scene, and continue to be involved in her recovery on a daily basis.
“Thankfully, she realized she had too much to live for. I’ve done my best to be her backbone throughout this entire situation,” said Haberkorn. “I set aside my personal life and gave her my undivided attention, talked with squadron leadership, and tried to put her in a position to get better.”
From a first sergeant perspective, Butt said Smalts’ story was an example of resiliency at its finest and hopes other leaders continue to provide and seek assistance to deal with challenges.
“We in leadership positions at all levels, must seek assistance at the point of contact,” said her first sergeant. “This is not just an Airman issue. At conception, find those in our families, peers, mentors, leaders and support agencies that can help the situation and start acquiring coping skills to make us resilient, not only for ourselves, but to educate others.”
Smalts said she is very grateful for her first sergeant, commander, other leadership and the mental health professionals who have worked here and been supportive during this entire process. Smalts received outpatient treatment and counseling during her recovery and found those sessions to be some of the most beneficial parts of her recovery.
After reflecting on the night she almost committed suicide, she said, “I had a bad night, and one that I will probably regret for the rest of my life, but it was one that has gotten me to get the help that I needed. I’m in recovery, and I love it. I love how happy I am. Sometimes the biggest mistakes we make are huge blessings in disguise and I think this was one of those.”
Oftentimes getting help for mental, behavioral or substance use disorders is thought of as a weakness. However, seeking help and treatment could possibly be the strongest step someone can make to get better.
“We, as an Air Force, have got to do better,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright. “We must find a way to ensure every Airman feels they can safely seek help, encourage those Airmen to utilize available resources, and continue to reduce the stigma of seeking help from mental health professionals. We must listen to our Airmen, build professional relationships and speak up when we notice warning signs.”
“Not only must we listen to our Airmen, we have to listen to the Airmen who have been there,” Wright said. “They’ve hit rock bottom and through the support of their unit and helping agencies found a way out. These success stories save lives. They shine a light on the issue and reaffirm those who are struggling that they are better and stronger than suicide.”
Through sharing her story, Smalts has received hundreds of phone numbers through social media from people wanting to talk about this sensitive, yet very important issue. She is encouraged that people are willing to share their story and wants those suffering to seek help, rather than keep their issues close-hold.
Her message to those with suicidal thoughts is simple, “Don’t. Get help and survive,” she said. “Be strong, be resilient and get through those tough times and I promise you will come out stronger and better at the end of it.”
September is Suicide Prevention Month. If you, or someone you know, is thinking about suicide, get help. Suicide is never the solution. There are people who care about you and want you to live. The Military Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day by calling (800)273-8255 and provides free and confidential emotional support to service members, veterans, and their families.