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How I Bounced Back

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JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- "The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It's the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun." - Napoleon Hill

One Andrews Airman has much in common with that struggling oak tree.

Contrary to logic, his lifetime of loss, un- appreciation and seemingly endless adversity hasn't worn him down to a broken pile of brush; rather, it has strengthened him.

Senior Airman Srun Sookmeewiriya, a structural engineering journeyman for the 11th Civil Engineer Squadron, shared his story of overcoming what, to many, would have been insurmountable odds with the men and women of the 11th Wing at the Wing Resiliency Day assembly (date).

After losing his mother and father to suicide at a young age and even tempted to end his own life on several occasions, Sookmeewiriya shared the inspiration that kept him going.
His story begins in Thailand, where he was born.

"I was only 8 or 9 years old when my mother committed suicide," he began. "I was the one who spotted her."

His mother had ingested insecticide and was struggling to breathe when he found her. The family took her to the hospital but it was too late. She died that same night.

"Everything went downhill for the family," Sookmeewiriya said.

His father, who had lost a leg in an automobile accident years earlier, was now a single parent. The fractured family moved to a townhouse near Sookmeewiriya's aunt to escape the memory of the suicide.

"A year after my mother died, Feb. 10, 1996, my dad told me to go play with my friends," Sookmeewiriya said. "I asked him, 'are you all right?' because he looked completely depressed. I thought maybe he needed some time alone, so I went out to play at around nine in the morning."

Sookmeewiriya returned that afternoon to an eerily quiet home. He walked into his father's room, knowing that he usually took a nap around that time of day.

"There was blood everywhere," he said. "On the bed, on the floor, on the walls. Everything. My dad was lying on the floor and there was a gun in his right hand. His eyes were half closed and there was a bullet hole in his chest. My brother was laying perpendicular to him. There was blood on him too, and I didn't know if he was shot.

"At first I thought, 'this can't be true,'" Sookmeewiriya said. "I didn't cry, I didn't do anything. I thought, 'this can't be happening.' I tried to wake him up and he was cold."

Sookmeewiriya's younger brother, who has neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow in the nervous system, was taken to the hospital for his gunshot wound.

"My dad shot him," Sookmeewiriya said, of his brother. "The bullet exited through his back, and came less than an inch from his heart. My dad left a note that said he was leaving this place and he was taking my brother with him since he was so sick. My brother lived, but now has even more medical problems."

Sookmeewiriya's aunt took the boys to America, where they bounced around the foster system, going from family to family and often being mistreated.

Falling into a deep depression, Sookmeewiriya also tried to end his life. He cut his wrists and bled, but didn't die. After seeing the wound, the family he was living with at the time intervened.

"The wife took me out, drove me around and asked me the question: Why did I do it?" Sookmeewiriya said. "I lied. I told her I just felt depressed. But the real reason was I missed my mom and my dad. The last time I hugged my dad was the last time I really felt."
The conversation continued.

"She asked me who would take care of my brother," he said. "That question shifted my way of thinking. She said, 'you are like a father to him. Things happen for a reason; maybe you not being successful at your suicide is a sign that you need to be here for your brother."

With This realization that his life was important, if not for him, to those he loved, Sookmeewiriya decided to face life with a different attitude.

"After that point, I gradually began to get better and better," Sookmeewiriya said. "I told myself that I wasn't going to repeat the same mistakes my mom and dad made. They left me, but that doesn't mean I should do the same thing to my brother."

His brother became more than a reason to stay around, but an inspiration. Sookmeewiriya admired the young man's courage through all the tragedies and medical problems he faced during his life. The bullet wound he received from his father caused the development of scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.

"Never once did I hear my brother say he wanted to commit suicide," Sookmeewiriya said. "He has gone through surgeries, and every operation is a near-death experience for him. He has resiliency.

"He told me, 'Srun, thanks for everything you do. Every time I have a surgery, I know I have to stay alive because I don't want to fail you. You joined the Air Force, you became my guardian and you've become like a father to me.' I told him what we are going through is tough, but we will make it through."

They are making it. Sookmeewiriya is now married, has a stable career, a house and a car. But most importantly, he has a system of support.

"When I told my wife my story, she told me not to keep it bottled up," Sookmeewiriya said.  "She told me, 'we can work everything out a step at a time.'"

End of story? Is it all better now? No. Every service member knows that life in the military can have its trying times.

Sookmeewiriya, for example, failed his Career Development Course test twice. Rather than ridicule him and write him off as a failure, his Air Force family offered him support and helped him reach success.

"My shop chief and my supervisor are there for me," he said. "They help me through the tough times. In turn, I give 100 percent. The Air Force gave me the opportunity to take care of my family, so I take care of the Air Force the same way."

Through the rest of his journey through life, Sookmeewiriya says he will not be overcome by negativity.

"Now, I use the negativity in my life and turn it around. I use it to push myself further. That's how I bounce back. That's my resiliency."