On wingmanship: Senior Airman Douglas Sullivan

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Duncan McElroy
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs

(This story is part 2 of a 5 part series of features and commentaries about wingmanship throughout November 2015.)

(Editor’s note:  To respect their privacy, the name of the individual involved has been changed.)

Senior Airman Douglas Sullivan, 81st Security Forces Squadron Base Defense Operations Center controller, works in the so-called ‘nerve center’ of Keesler. With the help of his fellow Defenders and the rest of Team Keesler, they provide quick reaction and knowledgeable response to incidents to ensure the installation and its personnel stay safe during routine operations as well as during emergencies.

As a member of the BDOC, Sullivan has to be well-versed in crisis communication and delegation, as he dispatches police units to everything from car accidents to security breaches and more.

One night, about a year ago, Sullivan’s ability to think on his feet and communicate effectively was put to the test by an Airman in need.

“I got a call from a friend who was extremely concerned about Zach and his emotional state,” Sullivan said. “He [Zach] was saying stuff like ‘I’m really sorry to everyone’ and ‘I’m just going to go away now.’”

Recognizing that his wingman needed help, Sullivan gathered all the information he could and called the flight chief, who headed to Zach’s dorm.

Zach, then a fellow member of the 81st SFS, wasn’t there.

“After about 15 minutes, I got a call on my personal cell phone from Zach,” Sullivan said. “He seemed upset; he was asking me why patrol units were heading to his dorm and who notified BDOC.”

Sullivan needed to gain control of the situation. Luckily he knew some of Zach’s interests, and tried to sway the conversation to a positive topic.

“I was able to calm Zach down, but he was still saying no one cared about him and we were just going to lock him up,” Sullivan said. “I immediately tried to shut down those thoughts – I reminded him of the time our whole flight came to his apartment to help out – not because we were told to, but because we’re Defenders; we’re family.”

Though he was calmer, that still didn’t solve Sullivan’s biggest issue – where was Zach, and was he going to hurt himself? Patrol cars were in several areas around base, but he was still nowhere to be found. Sullivan kept him talking. Every minute on the phone was another opportunity to help his friend.

“Zach was calling out patrol unit movements, as well as an unrelated incident across base, so he had to have been in an elevated area,” he said. “We instructed all patrols to search the water towers, but still couldn’t find him. While continuing to talk with him, I figured out he had to be on foot at this time, but Zach still wouldn’t give up his location for fear of what would happen to him.”

After keeping Zach on the phone for almost three hours while patrol units searched for him, Sullivan finally made some headway.

“He agreed to come by the BDOC . . . over the course of our phone call it just seemed he truly just wanted someone to talk to,” Sullivan said. “Zach was nervous, but I just kept reassuring him. I just wanted to help.”

Some of the patrol units set up to observe avenues of approach, and one of the NCOs on duty went to the BDOC to ensure the safety of both Zach and Sullivan.

“Zach accidentally said he was near Alley Hall, since he seemed to have gotten turned around and asked for directions while on his way to the BDOC,” Sullivan recalled. “Our units were able to secure him, and along with our commander escorted him to the Keesler Medical Center for treatment.”

Sullivan explained the whole incident felt like he was talking to a close friend or family member, and that the experience has stuck with him.

“He isn’t in the Air Force anymore, but no matter what I will never forget Zach,” he said. “But my concern was getting him to safety. We both got a bit emotional throughout the call, but that’s what happens when you share a bond with someone. I was prepared to leave my post to talk to him, and he saw I was willing to do that. He’s on a good track now though, and he got the help he needed.”

Since that time, Sullivan is now attending Airman Leadership School and on his way to becoming an NCO. His experience with Zach taught him just how important being a wingman is – sometimes it really can be about saving a life.

“That’s something I’m going to teach my Airmen once I’m a supervisor,” Sullivan said. “Any day something like this could happen. That’s why since then I’ve put more time into getting to know people. Everyone gets stressed, and in our line of work you have to have that bond. That’s been my main goal, to know everybody. You have to take care of each other.”

He also stressed for those in need to find that wingman, sit down and talk.

“You don’t have to hold it in,” he said. “There are benefits to coming in when you’re not feeling right. “There are hundreds of people here who will listen. Whether it’s the base chaplain, your buddy or your supervisor, don’t be afraid to take those steps. We care about you.”