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Suicide survivor's story leads other sailors to seek help

May. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Chief Aviation Survival Equipmentman (AW/SW) Jeromy Kelsey and his wife, Kristen, recount his 2000 suicide attempt while an E-5 and his return to service.
Chief Aviation Survival Equipmentman (AW/SW) Jeromy Kelsey and his wife, Kristen, recount his 2000 suicide attempt while an E-5 and his return to service. (Joan Pahoyo)
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NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, CALIF. — To hear Jeromy Kelsey tell it, nobody just decides one day to commit suicide and does it.

Taking your life, he said, is the end of a long path — the final step in a long, downward journey you may not know you’re on until death seems to be the only option left.

“The suicide thought begins as kind of a dot in the back of your mind, and each day that thought gets bigger and bigger,” Kelsey said. “It’s not really a decision because it takes a lot to overcome a person’s desire to survive.”

And he should know. Kelsey, now a chief aircrew survival equipmentman, reached the end of his downward journey 14 years ago, when as a petty officer second class stationed in Keflavik, Iceland, he stepped off the edge — and survived.

Kelsey, 38 and an 18-year Navy veteran, is up a second time for senior chief and plans to stick around the Navy a little longer. After years of silence about his attempted suicide, he’s started talking about his journey.

His message: If you need help in your life, seek it.

Suicidal thoughts, or even acts, aren’t necessarily career-ending. Kelsey, who sat down with Navy Times at Naval Air Station North Island, California, on Feb. 18, is living proof.

That’s a message the Navy wants sailors to hear.

Rear Adm. Sean Buck, who heads the service’s 21st Century Sailor office, said the Navy is working hard to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness and attempted suicide, and is encouraging sailors to get involved with shipmates when they sense that something’s wrong.

They hope that better education, including Kelsey’s story, will continue to drive down the number of sailor suicides, which stood at 44 in 2013.

'I was lost'

Kelsey said those who need help sometimes seem perfectly normal and may be functioning well on the job.

“Depression is really good about hiding itself,” he said. “I didn’t leave any breadcrumbs that the command should have picked up on. I functioned well in my job.”

Born in 1976 in Modesto, California, Kelsey said both his parents were drug addicts, and he grew up in life with only one constant — chaos.

Physically and sexually abused from age 3, he said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before he joined the Navy in 1996.

“I didn’t have any life skills, I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook, didn’t know how to make responsible decisions,” he said. “I might know how to cut cocaine with baby powder, but my parents didn’t teach me even the simplest of life skills.”

Kelsey said boot camp was chaos, so he actually felt at home.

He’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant before he joined the Navy. After “A” school, he arrived home in time to see the baby be born. He reported to his first command with a wife and baby; the Navy knew about neither.

While on the job, he followed orders and didn’t get into trouble. He advanced to second class shortly after re-enlisting and transferring to Keflavik.

By then, he had three children and two broken marriages. Shipmates began to avoid him, seeing him as bad news.

“I didn’t have any friends anymore, started just sitting in my room and by the end of the year, I was ready to die,” he recalled.

Insomnia set in. He tried prescription sleeping pills and then began drinking.

One day, he decided that his life was too far gone.

“I hadn’t slept, my mind was scattered, I was lost,” he said. “Nothing had gotten better, and now I couldn’t sleep, either. All I had was the constant screaming of life in my head; it was more than I could handle.”

Firearms were rare in Iceland. Hanging seemed like it would be awful. So he settled on pills.

But when he got to the Navy Exchange, the sleeping pills were sold out. Instead, he purchased nighttime cold medicine. He peeled 100 pills from their blister packs and swallowed them all with a bit of rum.

“I remember being excited that the end was near,” he recalled. “I sat on my bed and everything got quiet. It was amazing. It was like euphoric almost — I knew I wasn’t going to have to live with myself.”

After passing out, Kelsey was discovered by his supervisor, who had stopped by to borrow a movie. That shipmate called for help. The police took down his door and he was taken to medical.

The road back

“The first thing I remember was my [commanding officer], because he was sitting right there when I woke up,” said Kelsey, adding his skipper had only spoken to him twice before. “He was there and sat with me — sat with me every single day.”

Kelsey told his CO three things.

“I told him I didn’t want to die and I didn’t want out of the Navy, but I needed help,” he recalled.

His skipper ordered Kelsey moved to a stateside hospital, keeping tabs on him from afar.

When he was ready to leave the hospital, the skipper worked with the detailer to get him on limited duty and orders to California so he could get his life in order.

“I’d never heard of someone being allowed to stay on active duty when they did something like this,” Kelsey said. “But my CO told me that I’d have eight months to get my life in order.”

After completing his limited duty, Kelsey returned to full duty and moved on.

Now, 13 years later, the Navy is struggling to strip the stigma that used to follow sailors with depression, especially those who attempted suicide.

Kelsey, now a chief petty officer, has come forward, hoping that sharing his story might save a career — or a life.

“His story is immediate and powerful,” said Capt. Monty Ashliman, NAS Lemoore’s commanding officer who listened as Kelsey brought his message to all ranks at the California base.

“Seeing this successful chief petty officer up there, telling this compelling story, makes you think twice.”

The base’s counselors, Ashliman said, saw an increase in sailors coming in the days after Kelsey made the rounds at the base. Though he’s reluctant to attribute this solely to Kelsey’s talk, Ashliman believes it created a buzz that prompted some sailors to seek help.

Kelsey said he’s open to more speaking engagements, but in the meantime, he’s got a job to do as the quality assurance supervisor at Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 78, based at NAS North Island and attached to the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan.

“I only wish I’d gotten help earlier, that I had the courage to come forward earlier,” he said.

“I expected more than once the Navy would turn it’s back on me, but they never did.”

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