Overcoming the shadow of death: an Airman’s fight against depression

Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya, 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of reports, stares out the window of his work center on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 16, 2017. Sookmeewiriya attempted suicide twice after the death of both his parents. He now shares his story in an effort to help Airmen open up about struggles and bounce back from their challenges. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua Magbanua)

Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya, 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of reports, stares out the window of his work center on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 16, 2017. Sookmeewiriya attempted suicide twice after the death of both his parents. He now shares his story in an effort to help Airmen open up about struggles and bounce back from their challenges. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua Magbanua)

Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya, 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of reports, holds up a picture of him and his younger brother, Thana, on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 16, 2017. Sookmeewiriya, who attempted to commit suicide twice, draws inspiration from his brother to remain resilient and encourages Airmen to open up about their struggles. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua Magbanua)

Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya, 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of reports, holds up a picture of him and his younger brother, Thana, on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 16, 2017. Sookmeewiriya, who attempted to commit suicide twice, draws inspiration from his brother to remain resilient and encourages Airmen to open up about their struggles. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua Magbanua)

Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya, 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of reports, points to scarring on his left wrist on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 16, 2017. Sookmeewiriya attempted to commit suicide twice at a young age. He now shares his story occasionally to the public, encouraging struggling Airmen to seek help and be resilient.

Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya, 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of reports, points to scarring on his left wrist on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 16, 2017. Sookmeewiriya attempted to commit suicide twice at a young age. He now shares his story occasionally to the public, encouraging struggling Airmen to seek help and be resilient.

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany --

Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya (pronounced, Sook-mee-vi-ri-ya), or Sook, as many people know him, seems like a happy and carefree Airman at first glance.

The 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of reports regularly puts forth an earnest effort to keep his unit alive and running.

The name Sookmeewiriya means happy in Thai, and for Sook’s coworkers, it suits him very well.

"He's like the morale person, that's what everybody else refers him to," said Master Sgt. Melissa Vela, 313th EOSS NCO in charge of console operations. "He's so full of energy. When everybody's tired, he would make a sound or be as loud as he could be just to perk up everybody else and people just laugh at him. He's so infectious, he makes everybody laugh."

However, Sook has a dark past which may take many by surprise.

When he was young, in his native Thailand, he witnessed his mother commit suicide by injecting insecticide.

“I just stood there and watched and didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Is this for real, is this happening.’ I was just stunned and thought, ‘Why would she do that?’”

One year later, death struck Sook’s family again.

Sook noticed his father one day was not acting like himself. He asked his father how he was doing, and asked permission if he could go out and play with his friends.

“It was a rough transition; my father drifted into depression,” Sook recalled. “He said, ‘I’m fine, just go out and play. I’ll see you when you get back.’”

But the two never saw each other again. When he got home, Sook found the door unlocked, his father lying lifeless with a gun in his hand, and his younger brother Thana struggling to survive. His father had tried to take Thana with him.

“I saw him lying there in bed,” Sook recounted about his father. “I wasn’t sure what happened. I tried to wake him up to see if he was still alive.

All kinds of thoughts started racing through Sook’s mind. His parents were gone, and his brother was dangling between life and death.

“I thought I was alone,” he said. “I didn’t know where I was going to stay, and I didn’t know who I would go to now. My head was just spinning at that point, it was a shock.

“It slowly sunk in that I didn’t have anybody to care for me anymore,” Sook added.

Thana survived the gunshot, but was never the same — both physically and mentally.

With his mother and father gone, Sook found himself taking care of the only family he had left: his brother Thana.

The two went into the care of a family member from their father's first marriage. They sent Sook to a boarding school, where depression continued to haunt him.

"They sent me to boarding school because no one wanted to take care of me, at least that's how I felt as a kid," he said. "I got bullied a lot in school. They taunted me saying, 'You have no parents, you have no parents!' At that point I just felt like I was alone."

Eventually, Sook decided he couldn't take it anymore and wanted to end it all, so he attempted suicide by ingesting a large amount of over-the-counter medication.

He remembered hallucinating, then vomiting, and finally blacking out. When Sook woke up, he thought he had been out for just a few hours. But then he found out he had been in a coma for two days, he said.

In the course of time, Sook finished boarding school and eventually immigrated to the U.S., where Thana would join him soon after.

Sook spent his early days in America with relatives from his father's first marriage. He mentioned how he would bounce around from family to family because of his troubled personality. He also felt as if he was just an outsider because of his status as a "half-relative."

"I felt like I didn't belong, because I wasn't a part of their family," Sook said. "I was just half blood. I didn't feel any sense of emotion when I hugged them."

The feeling of being an outsider overwhelmed Sook. He tried to kill himself again, this time using broken glass and a razor blade. However, he stopped after seeing that it wouldn’t work.

“I didn't want to deal with the state I was in: not feeling welcome and not feeling like I was part of the family," he said, describing the emotion he was feeling at the moment. "At that time as a kid, I thought that the best way was to just end it all and leave."

Sook tried to hide his attempted suicide, but his relatives eventually found out and sent him to the doctor to get help. His half-sister, Kim, was especially appalled, and confronted him about what he done.

Kim grilled him, asking why he would do such a thing and why he thought that killing himself was the answer to his problems—and then she asked, "What about your brother?"

"When she mentioned my brother, I totally thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'm leaving him behind,'" Sook recalled. That’s when he decided to turn around and confront his issues, not run from them, he said. Sook described his brother as his inspiration in his fight against depression.

"He was the only family I had up to that point," Sook said. "It was me and him. He has been through a lot tougher things than I had. Because of the gunshot wound, he was scarred for life — he didn't grow up normally.

"But he never gave up," Sook continued. "That's one reason why I should not and will not give up on him — because he didn't either."

As part of his process of recovery, Sook found strength in his faith and his sister Kim, who helped him get back on his feet.

"I got help spiritually," he said. "I went to church regularly every Sunday with her, listened to the messages, and read the Bible. For me, that's how I bounced back.

It took me a while, basically a couple years," he added, explaining that his recovery process did not happen overnight. "I think I'm still bouncing back to this day. I think of this tragedy which happened to me as a lesson, and that lesson is to not repeat the same thing that they did."

As the years passed, Sook joined the Air Force as a civil engineer Airman, and crossed trained to be an air mobility controller. He also adopted Thana as his dependent, married and started a family.

Sook noted that although his life still has its ups and downs, he copes by confiding in his wife. He also expressed gratefulness for the support his coworkers give him continuously.

"Having a good work center in the Air Force actually helped me out a lot," he said. "When I have other issues, they continue to help me out."

Vela described how surprised she was when Sook opened up his past to her, saying that she would have never guessed that an Airman like Sook would have such a traumatic past.

"I was speechless the whole time he told his story," she recalled. "I was like, 'Oh my God, are you ok?' To me, I can see the strength in his words and his actions. Seeing the strength that he had to come forth and tell his story is amazing."

Sook shares his story occasionally with the public, hoping to encourage people suffering from depression to seek help and not try to survive on their own. Opening up to people who care is important to overcoming life's challenges, and there are many people standing by ready to assist in the battle against depression, he said.

"There are so many agencies on base which can help," Sook said. "Don't bottle up those issues. If you stress out, talk it out. Find somebody who is willing to listen."

Sook encouraged Airmen to look for a cause, and do what it takes to survive so they can continue to fight for it.

"Don't give up, look for what you're fighting for," he said. "I fight for my brother, my wife, and my kids. It's their future and my future."