YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan --
This is a story about how Gregory Smith noticed an odd Facebook post, and left a brief comment.
This is also a story about how Gregory Smith spent hours on his phone in Japan, crouched over his computer, talking to a wayward friend on the run in the empty expanses of the Texas panhandle, looking to go Anywhere Else (which turned out to be in Colorado).
But mostly this is a story about how Staff Sgt. Gregory Smith, a command post controller at Headquarters U.S. Forces, Japan, helped save a life.
The first word that comes to mind when one meets Gregory Smith is not ‘Airman,’ though his military appearance and bearing are impeccable. They just happen to be outweighed by other impressions, such as ‘bulldog’ or, possibly, ‘cinder block.’
“I like to work out,” he explains, modestly. It’s not, if we are speaking honestly, something that needs to be said – at 5-foot-4 and 187 pounds, approximately 100 percent of which appears to be muscle, Smith is a walking advertisement for the Air Force Fit to Fight program. He enjoys hitting the weights at the gym, snowboarding, fishing, or as he put it, “anything outdoorsy.”
He also likes boxing. That’s an important part of this story, too.
Smith works in a secure facility in the USFJ headquarters, down a flight of stairs, behind two steel security doors, behind another security door, in the heart of the Joint Operations Center.
The JOC has no windows. It’s easy to lose track of time down there, with the high ceilings, rows of wall-mounted televisions, and constant industrial air-conditioner chill. There’s no way to know if the sun is still shining.
Smith spends his twelve-hour shifts in the JOC, keeping track of pretty much everything in Japan that affects the bilateral alliance. Military movements, missile launches, auto accidents, the weather – anything the USFJ or PACOM commander needs to know passes through this underground command center.
On Sept. 26, Smith was coming off a normal shift and checked his social media. There was a Facebook message waiting for him from the mother of a friend back at his last duty station in Texas, where Smith was stationed before coming to Yokota.
She couldn’t get ahold of her son, and she was getting desperate.
“She was concerned,” he said. “She said she noticed that I had commented on one of his posts a few days before, and he just liked it back. And that was enough for her to feel like, ‘This is communication from somebody’.”
Miguel (we will only use his first name here, in the interest of privacy) was a fellow command post controller at Smith’s last station. Miguel arrived in early 2013, and they spent nearly two years working together as colleagues and friends.
“At some point we both found out that we liked boxing, so he would come over and watch boxing with me,” Smith said.
After Smith left for Japan, they kept in touch via Facebook. Commenting on each other’s status updates and photos, hitting the little blue ‘thumbs-up’ button when they saw something interesting. Chatting via Facebook’s instant message service. Innocuous stuff, mostly.
But one item caught Smith’s eye. Miguel posted a cryptic message about ‘Facebook Suicide.’ Alarmed, Smith reached out.
No, it was just a misunderstanding, Miguel replied. He simply meant that he was going to delete his Facebook profile. There was no need for concern.
But Miguel didn’t delete his profile, and a few days later he was back to posting. And then, one day in September, he got into his car and drove away. He didn’t answer his phone, or respond to texts or messages from his increasingly worried family and supervisor.
He just went north.
When Smith first got the message from Miguel’s mother, he didn’t know any of this. He was fresh off shift, with a family he hadn’t seen all day, but he took the time to send Miguel a quick message: “Hey, call your mom.”
Miguel sent a phone number in response. Smith called it, and so began an unusual conversation.*
Miguel: “Hey, have you heard?”
Smith: “No, heard what?”
Miguel: “I’m on the run.”
Smith, after a pause: “Can you clarify that? What do you mean?”
Miguel: “I left. I left base.”
Smith: “Like, AWOL left? What’s that mean?”
Miguel: “Yeah, I’m AWOL. I don’t think I want to go back.”
Smith’s young daughter began to cry, and he took it as an opportunity. He told Miguel he had to take care of her real quick, and he would call him right back. Instead, he called Miquel’s command post, and confirmed that Miguel had been missing for more than a day.
He called Miguel back.
“At this point I was just trying to focus in on his location,” Smith said. “And I was messaging with my old supervisor, letting him know what was happening.”
By now Miguel was several hours north, in the foothills of the Colorado mountains. He’d been on the road for hours, and Smith talked him into pulling over. For more than three hours he stayed on the phone, chatting about nothing in particular. Random things, Smith recalled.
“We talked about the problems he was having, and why he wanted to leave. But by the time I got off the line, around midnight in Japan, he’d agreed to go to a hotel and then check in at a hospital.
“I made him promise he would call me before he checked himself in.”
When Smith woke up the next day, it was to his alarm. There were no missed calls or messages from Miguel.
“I called him back, and he said he hadn’t turned himself in,” Smith said. “He just didn’t feel comfortable – he changed locations.”
So Smith started over. This time they spoke on the phone for nearly six hours. Smith’s supervisor arranged for someone to cover his shift while he worked at a computer, messaging with his old boss, looking for a hotel in Colorado his friend could spent the night in. Food, too – Miguel hadn’t eaten in a while.
But mostly they talked.
“I was just that outlet he needed,” Smith said.
By that time it was late in Colorado, and Miguel was tired. He got to the hotel Smith had arranged for him, and they signed off for the evening.
Once he knew his friend was safe, Smith relayed everything to his former supervisor at the base in Texas. They contacted a local Air Force base, and they worked with local law enforcement to bring Miguel to a hospital.
When people ask Smith how he knew what to do when he got the phone call, he’s quick to explain that it came down to friendship.
“I was just acting like a good friend,” he said. “The Air Force suicide prevention training is great, and people need to know what little things to look out for, but ultimately I was just being a good friend.”
Little things like the odd Facebook post, or a changed profile picture. Comments to coworkers that raise eyebrows. A history of problems, and no one to talk to. All signs of an Airman in distress.
From six thousand miles away, Gregory Smith wasn’t in a position to notice all these things. But he stayed in touch, and that one little comment he left on Miguel’s Facebook page set in motion a long chain of events that ended with an Airman getting the help he needed.
“The friend in me wanted to help in regards to shelter, food, and guidance. However, as a NCO, I knew I was responsible for getting his leadership involved and I had to let the friendship part go.”
At this point in the conversation, Smith pulled his copy of AFI 36-2618 out of his cargo pocket. The brown cover was worn away, white in places, flaking little bits of paper. It had obviously seen much love and much use over the years.
“Those military standards or ethics are learned and provided in the ‘The Little Brown Book’, the personal ones are ingrained into us,” he said. “However, being in the military you have to know how to use both interchangeably. This situation force me to do that.
“As a friend, I didn't want to ‘betray’ his trust, but as a NCO I knew I had to get his leadership involved to provide him with the appropriate care.”
It’s a lesson most people hopefully won’t have to learn. But for an Air Force NCO, responsible for his fellow Airmen, it’s all part of the job.
ACE – Suicide Prevention
September was National Suicide Prevention Month, and Nov. 19 is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. With nearly 22 veterans committing suicide every day, according to a recent Department of Veterans Affairs study, shouldn’t you know what to do if your wingman needs help?
Ask your wingman
Have the courage to ask the question, but stay calm
Ask the question directly: Are you thinking of killing yourself?
Care for your wingman
Calmly control the situation; do not use force; be safe
Actively listen to show understanding and produce relief
Remove any means that could be used for self-injury
Escort your wingman
Never leave your buddy alone
Escort to chain of command, Chaplain, behavioral health professional, or primary care provider
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.(800) 273-8255 (TALK)
*As recalled by Sergeant Smith.