HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --
“There’s so much that I don’t know, and that I may not ever know.”
When it comes to the topic of suicide, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Stephen Tilden realizes that he may never find answers.
For one, Tilden wonders what was going through his father’s mind on Christmas Eve in 2017.
That night in particular, his dad seemed to make an extra effort to socialize with their family.
“He was [usually] quiet and reserved, but he was really interactive and brought old family photos to show us,” Tilden recalled. “It was like he was being reminiscent and I thought that was really unique.”
Tilden never guessed it would be the last moment he shared with his father.
Three days later, police recovered his father’s body inside his car in Yerington, Nevada, a small town outside of Reno.
“All of us were in shock, and just unsure of how to move forward,” Tilden said.
“In hindsight, I wish I had asked more questions or had been more curious as to what he was doing or why he felt like he didn’t want to live anymore.”
In the days and weeks to follow, Tilden and his family went on to work through various matters, including ownership of his father’s home, among other decisions a family must make following a loved one’s death.
During that process, Tilden uncovered more telling details about his dad.
“Unfortunately, [his house] had shown that he stopped taking care of himself,” Tilden said. “The house was a disaster. It showed that he steadily became less and less inclined to take care of his personal self and his environment.”
Looking back, Tilden still finds it odd that his father seemed fairly normal on Christmas Eve, just a few days before his death.
“That was the crazy thing,” he said. “He showed up, not just physically, but emotionally as well. He was talking and joking and laughing. I honestly never would have thought it was the last time I’d see my dad.”
At the time, Tilden was in the process of enlisting in the Air Force and had been preparing to leave for Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. He went on to leave for BMT in January 2019, enlisting as a weather technician.
Knowing that his dad had been an advocate for his decision to join the Air Force, Tilden said his time at BMT was challenging.
“I thought about him a lot while I was there,” he said.
Not being able to share his graduation with his father was also a difficult moment, he added.
“After walking the parade field and seeing my brother, it was just a reminder that my dad wasn’t there,” Tilden said.
“I had been waiting to have him experience me graduating and see the things I had accomplished, because I was talking with him throughout my process of joining and he was so supportive.”
Additionally, he emphasized the confusion he felt and continues to feel today about suicide and about his father.
Shortly after arriving at his first duty station of Hurlburt Field, Florida, Tilden would experience the unsettling effects of suicide again–this time, involving the death of a fellow Airman.
In July 2020, his coworker at the 23rd Special Operations Weather Squadron, Airman 1st Class Conor Poole, didn’t report to work. Later, Tilden received a call from leadership, telling him that Poole had taken his life.
“It was just one of those surreal moments,” Tilden said. “It’s like a weight drop in your stomach.”
In a similar reaction to his father’s death, Tilden said he felt guilty and wondered if he could have done more.
“It’s one of those things I struggled with for a while,” he added.
While Tilden still has questions about suicide, today he finds himself gaining clarity through helping others.
Along with serving as a weather technician with the 23rd SOWS, Tilden volunteers as an instructor for the Hurlburt Field safeTALK program, a course that teaches Airmen how to identify the signs of suicide risk and how to seek help.
“[Suicide] is something we won’t completely be able to understand, but there are resources out there, and it’s becoming less and less stigmatized in the military,” Tilden said.
“As much as people may not like having to do mandatory briefings every year, it’s absolutely necessary because you don’t know whose life is going to be impacted by it.”
Brian Huber, 1st Special Operations Mission Support Group, Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) representative, added that Tilden’s personal experiences provide a compelling perspective.
“To have someone that wears the uniform and has dealt with that trauma and to have the resiliency to get better and want to give back - I don’t think you could get much more powerful,” Huber said.
Huber noted that Tilden’s ability to volunteer as a safeTALK instructor really speaks to his character.
“He doesn’t want anyone to feel the hurt and pain that he felt,” Huber said. “He’s putting good into all of that pain.”
Similarly, Tilden noticed that through his experiences, he is now a much more empathetic person.
“Everyone has a story,” he said. “I want to share mine and I’m here because this matters. I want people to know there is just so much more to live for.”
And now, Tilden realizes that having questions isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It can be as simple as asking someone how their day is going. I just want to encourage people to be curious about others and care for their fellow Airmen.”