Air Force Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya — or "Sook," as many people know him — may seem like a happy and carefree airman at first glance.
The 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron's noncommissioned officer in charge of reports regularly puts forth an earnest effort here to keep his unit alive and running, so his dark past and his struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts come as a surprise to many.
"He's like the morale person — that's what everybody else refers him to," said Air Force Master Sgt. Melissa Vela, the 313th EOSS NCO in charge of console operations. "He's so full of energy. He's so infectious, he makes everybody laugh."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya, 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of reports, holds a picture of himself with his younger brother, Thana, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 16, 2017. Sookmeewiriya, who attempted to commit suicide twice, said he 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)
Unknown to many of his wingmen, Sook's current persona is possible only because he recovered from serious trauma he experienced as a young man. When Sook still lived in his native Thailand, both of his parents committed suicide. He witnessed his mother's suicide, and he found his father's body after his father had taken his own life and attempted to kill Sook's younger brother, Thana.
"I saw him lying there in bed," he recalled. "I wasn't sure what happened. I tried to wake him up to see if he was still alive. I thought I was alone, and I didn't know who I would go to now. My head was just spinning at that point. It was a shock." Thana survived the gunshot wound, but was never the same, physically or mentally, Sook said.
With his mother and father gone, Thana was the only family Sook had left. He went to a boarding school, where he said depression haunted him and other children bullied him for not having parents. This led to a suicide attempt by ingesting a large amount of over-the-counter medication. He was in a coma for two days.
Sook finished boarding school and eventually immigrated to the United States, where Thana would join him soon afterward. Sook spent his early time in the U.S. with relatives from his father's first marriage. He would bounce from family to family because of his troubled personality, he said, and 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 didn't feel any emotion when I hugged them."
Trauma can take many forms; in recent years the military is striving to raise awareness of its symptoms and provide treatment.
The feeling of being an outsider overwhelmed Sook, and he tried to kill himself again.
"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. "At that time as a kid, I thought that the best way was to just end it all and leave."
Sook said he tried to hide his attempted suicide, but his relatives eventually found out and sent him to a doctor to get help. His half-sister, Kim, was especially appalled, and confronted him about what he done. She asked, "What about your brother?"
"When she mentioned my brother, I totally thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'm leaving him behind,'" Sook said. That's when he decided to turn around and confront his issues instead of running from them. Sook described his brother as his inspiration in his fight against depression.
"He was the only family I had up to that point. 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. That's one reason why I should not and will not give up on him, because he didn't either."
Strength in Recovery
As part of his recovery process, Sook found strength in his faith and from Kim, who helped him get back on his feet.
"It took me a while — basically, a couple years," he said. "I think I'm still bouncing back to this day. I think of this tragedy as a lesson, and that lesson is to not repeat the same thing that [my parents] did."
Sook joined the Air Force as a civil engineer airman, and cross-trained to be an air mobility controller. He adopted Thana as his dependent, and eventually married and started a family. He noted that although his life still has its ups and downs, he copes by confiding in his wife. He also expressed gratitude 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 to her about his past, saying that she would have never guessed that an airman like Sook would have experienced so much trauma.
"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."
Encouragement for Others
Sook shares his story occasionally with the public, hoping to encourage people suffering from depression to seek help and not to try to survive on their own. He said he emphasizes how important it is to open up to people who care, and that many people are standing by at agencies on the base ready to assist in their battle against depression.
"Don't bottle up those issues," he added. "If you stress out, talk it out. Find somebody who is willing to listen."
Sook said he encourages airmen to look for a cause and to 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."