Last month, I gave my annual suicide prevention briefing to my Air National Guard unit. After the briefing, Sgt. Gilbert Rodela astonished me when told me privately, "I know what steel tastes like."
In the next few hours, Gil related his story.
In July 1992, Gil's sister called him with unimaginable news. Their brother Daniel, whose children had been ordered out of the home for child abuse, shot himself and his girlfriend. Gil reeled with the news.
Before Gil had a chance to breathe, his sister delivered a final blow.
"It's worse," his sister warned. "It was a suicide pact. They agreed that 'if we cannot have our kids, then no one can.' " Together, they suffocated Lance, 2, and Drake, 11 months.
As shocking as Gil's story began, it quickly became obvious where the suicidal seeds had been sown.
Gil described his childhood as looking "like the happy Brady Bunch, but we were really the dysfunctional Adams Family." Countless times, Gil remembers his alcoholic father "whipping us with his belt, leaving terrible welts."
After the beatings, the siblings played a tragic game they called the "horse head game." The game got its name from his father's 3-inch Western belt with riveted horse heads. "Whoever had the most horse head welts on them," Gil said grimly, "would be considered the 'winner' of this little game."
After the murder/suicide, Gil said he experienced daily torment over the responsibility he felt for his brother's actions.
"Months went by," he said, "without me letting anyone close enough to see my pain and torment. I felt all alone, even in the busiest of places."
Finally, he decided it "was time to just end it. I chambered a round and placed the barrel of a 9mm gun in my mouth and tasted the cold steel.
"It was tortured thinking," he said, "but Daniel had opened this Pandora's box, and I was somehow thinking that if I did this, my mother, sisters and even father may follow suit."
Gil saw this as a justifiable means to end the long family history of abuse.
"The gun had a hair trigger and Gil anticipated a quick end.
"But something suddenly told me, 'No! Not today! I'm not done with you yet! You need to tell your story to other people. You need to help others change their lives.'
"I knew that something was God," he said. "Since then, there have occasionally been times when I felt as if God was not taking away the pain, but I would always tell myself, not today; maybe tomorrow, just get through another day."
As each day since has passed, Gil feels farther and farther away from that grim day and his thoughts of suicide. That one-day-at-a-time approach has inspired him to appreciate "what the Lord has done for me and how it can get better if I would just trust in him."
Gil considers himself a work in progress. He still has issues with unresolved grief for his brother, but it no longer affects him in the same way. He's in a 12-step group for recovery while going through a divorce. Nevertheless, he's in touch everyday with that voice that pulled him back from the darkness.
"God is so amazing," he said. "I know now, more than ever, that God really does love me. Now, I just want to tell people about God's love."
Sept. 9 to 15 is National Suicide Prevention Week. Don't wait for help. Talking to someone about suicide doesn't encourage the act. Ask them whether they are considering hurting themselves and how they might do it.
Look for stressors such as abuse, humiliating events, a failure in job or school, a death in the family, bankruptcy or divorce. If you are thinking about committing suicide, call 800-273-8255. Visit www.suicidology.org/ for more information