The question that matters most

The question that matters most

U. S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Cunningham, 374th Airlift Wing Comptroller Squadron commander, stands in front of the window in his office, Sept. 8, 2017. Cunningham lost his brother to suicide in 2009 and his mother to cancer three years later; the Air Force was able to secure him a humanitarian change of station so he could help his family with the aftermath of his brother's death. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kyle Johnson)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- It was about one in the morning when Jim Cunningham found out his eldest brother committed suicide.

“I’m usually in bed by 9:30, 10 p.m. and my family knows this,” said Lt. Col. Jim Cunningham, 374th Comptroller Squadron Commander. “Nobody calls after 10 o'clock in my family. When the phone rang and I looked down and saw who it was, I knew this wasn’t going to be good.”

Carey, his older brother, was hysterical on the other end of the line.

“He’s gone. John’s gone.”

Not understanding, Jim said he asked where he’d gone to.

“No, they found him in his apartment and he’s gone.”

Jim immediately thought back to a concerning phone conversation he’d had with John a few days prior where his brother had been acting strangely.

Concerned at the time, Jim asked if everything was ok, and even sent Carey over to check on John the next day. But he didn’t ask the question that matters most.

Jim’s parents were divorced and his father wasn’t around growing up, so John, being 10 years older, stepped in as a father figure of sorts.

“He taught me the life lessons of sports,” Cunningham said. “Hard work is what pays off, he never gave me anything. That’s something I passed on to my kids, the way you achieve success is by outworking everybody.”

In 1999, their mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, was treated for five years and had been in remission for five years when she went into the doctor for some back pain and the cancer was found to be back – this time throughout her entire body.

The news hit John hard, and it came in the wake of a rough divorce. A month later, they found him in his room with two empty bottles of sleeping pills.

“There was a lot of guilt, but I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and put my big-boy pants on and take care of my family,” Cunningham said. “My mom was in no condition to take care of the particulars so my brother and I made the funeral arrangements and all of the things that unfortunately come with a death in the family.”

Cunningham was in the beginning stages of a permanent change of station to Barksdale, Air Force Base, La, when he got the news, now he was planning a funeral for his brother and submitting for a humanitarian assignment to Washington State.

“I was very emotional,” Cunningham said. “I felt guilt, a certain amount of anger I tried to suppress I was uncertain about my future, if I couldn’t get a humanitarian, who was going to be there to take care of my mom?”

Within two weeks, Cunningham was stationed in Seattle teaching Air Force Reserve Officer’s Training Corps.

“The Air Force really came through for me as an individual,” Cunningham said. “It is what my family needed at the time to help stabilize all the pain and difficulties we were going through at that time.”

His mother moved in with his family and they spent the next three years battling cancer together until the illness eventually won out after 13 years of treatment and remission.

The darkest period in his family is behind him, but Cunningham will always have a lingering regret.

“There were signs in our phone conversation, and I asked some questions, but I didn’t flat out ask the question: are you thinking about hurting yourself?” Cunningham said. “I didn’t have the courage to ask my own brother that question.

“That’s my brother.”

Now, Cunningham shares his story whenever he can, hoping that others can ask the question he couldn’t.

He said he knows that even if he asked the question, his brother might have told him he was fine, just like he did when Carey went to check on him the next day – but he also may not have.

“You can always wonder if you had asked the question, would it have made a difference?” Cunningham said. “That’s an answer I’ll never know.

“The pain’s never going to go away. He’s not here.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 40,000 people die by suicide each year in the United States and it is the 10th leading cause of death overall.

The first step of suggested action when faced with someone who may be thinking about hurting themselves is to ask them that difficult question: Are you thinking about hurting yourself?

For more information on the warning signs of suicide or suicide hotline, visit https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml.