by Joseph Whitaker

I led what many would consider an idyllic childhood, the second child of a growing family playing in the apple orchards of Pennsylvania with my siblings and friends. I was struggling inside, however, to win the approval of my disciplinarian father, which did not come easily. I preferred theater to sports, loved being gregarious and making others laugh, and while I had meaningful relationships with women, I knew I was gay from an early age.

I was not always comfortable in my own shoes, but I always knew them to be my shoes and owned my circumstances. Although it took decades for me to fully understand this, accepting my circumstances allowed me to persevere through my many challenges. I felt bullied, unwanted and a failure to my father, yet I continued to fight those feelings, as hard as that would be, and for as long as it would take.  

In part, to demonstrate my resolve to myself and others, I enlisted in the Navy and trained in Pensacola, Florida. I graduated first in my class in 1967 with my father standing beside me. While my older brother avoided the draft and railed against the war, I felt a call to serve in a leadership capacity.

I was deployed to Vietnam in January 1969, on a three-year assignment. As the senior electronic warfare evaluator on long-range reconnaissance aircraft, I led numerous perilous missions over the Sea of Japan and Gulf of Tonkin. We were responsible for monitoring enemy electronic transmissions and served as a vital warning system for attacks on U.S. resources.

During one such mission, I first identified and reported that Russia had provided MiG 21 fighter aircraft to communist North Korea. This new weapon in their arsenal significantly enhanced the threat North Korea posed to our missions and allies.

Despite the strong reconnaissance evidence and prompt warnings to leadership, a separate mission with a separate team was sent closer to enemy forces the following day to further validate my discovery. Needlessly, this crew, identical to mine, was shot down and all 31 crew members perished creating significant personal anguish.    

I lost a close friend and my sole confidant in another crash. I did all I could to honor him by helping his wife and two young boys carry on.

My circumstances did not improve when I returned home in 1971. I suffered from PTSD, agent orange and self-imposed isolation. I became an alcoholic, reaching new lows that would take me to the brink of suicide. Again, I was forced to dig very deep to not allow my circumstances to overcome me.

After helping myself, I was inspired to help others in similar circumstances.

I have been an active participant in my twelve-step program for over 40 years. I have personally sponsored and supported dozens of individuals like myself through the program such that they now lead normal, healthy lives.

I founded Corporate Health Programs where I provided employee assistance services for businesses large and small. This work enabled me to assist hundreds of men and women in the workplace who struggle with addiction and suicide so that they, too, can get to the other side.

I am a proud Veteran and have the capacity and intention to help others rise above their circumstances. My mission is to share my experience, strength and hope so that others may find a way out of their darkness. 

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It is important for all of us to raise awareness of this national public health concern that affects all Americans. We all have a role to play in listening, connecting, and reaching out to those who may be struggling with challenges.

Following are some resources for recognition and assistance:

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Veteran’s Crisis Line

Lt. Joseph Whitaker, U.S. Navy, was based at Naval Air Station Atsugi, Japan from January 1969 to January 1971. He was deployed to Da Nang Air Force Base in Vietnam from Atsugi. In 1971, Whitaker was based at Naval Air Station Agana (Hagatna), Guam. A motivational speaker and the author of The Day Before I Died, his memoir, Whitaker lives in San Diego, California.

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