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Airman shares resilient journey to overcoming suicide

  • Published
  • By Brian Dietrick
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - Enjoying dinner at a Waikiki restaurant with great friends sounds like an amazing night in Hawaii. That is exactly what Master Sgt. Veronica Tannery was doing on a beautiful September night in 2019 before she received news that would change her life forever.

It was a normal Saturday morning and Tannery was going to meet her ex-husband, Master Sgt. Zack Tannery, at their daughter’s soccer game. They maintained a great relationship after their divorce a year prior and it was his weekend with their two kids.

They were sitting in the stands watching the game when Tannery noticed something off about Zack.

“He just started venting about things,” said Veronica, now assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “He was worried about our upcoming (permanent change of station) to different locations, not being able to see his kids and some financial debt that he had. There was also a cancer scare and some worry that he might get discharged because of it.”

They sat in the stands and discussed viable solutions to some of his concerns. She never wanted to take away Zack’s relationship with his children. They even joked that if Zack did get out of the Air Force, he would move to each of her different duty stations so he could maintain that bond.

After the game, they all grabbed lunch and then went back to Veronica’s house so the kids could grab their weekend bags to go stay with their dad.

Two hours later, she received a call from Zack. He was sobbing uncontrollably due to the overwhelming thought of not being around his children after going their separate ways with the upcoming PCS. Zack didn’t want his children seeing him like this and called Veronica to come and pick them up.

“I knew in my head that something was wrong,” she said, “and I was really worried about him. As a (professional military education) instructor, I’ve taught this stuff and was seeing it happen in real time.”

She called Zack to notify him once she arrived at his gated apartment complex. Zack said he’d send the kids down, but Veronica knew something was wrong and didn’t want him to be alone.

“He didn’t want any company and didn’t want to call anyone,” she said. “I gave him the suicide response number and told him that it’s confidential and he can talk to somebody and not feel like a burden. He said he would call.”

The kids were making their way to her car. Not wanting them to hear the conversation, they hung up the phone.

That was the last time Veronica would ever speak to Zack.

‘I guess I screamed’

Veronica had made dinner plans that evening — since Zack was scheduled to have the kids.

“I told my kids I’d cancel dinner so I can hang out with them, but they insisted I go, telling me to ‘go and live my best life,’” she said.

That is exactly what she did. She dropped the children off at her house and then drove to meet her friends for dinner.

During the meal, Veronica got an alarming text from Zack that stated: “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I keep pushing anymore.”

“My heart just sank right there in that restaurant,” she said. “He was showcasing all the suicidal ideation red flags and my suicide prevention training started to kick in.”

Veronica called him. No answer. She replied to his text and said she was going to call 911 because it sounded like a goodbye.

She tried calling again. Still no answer.

Veronica knew she needed to respond and abruptly left the restaurant. She called the Honolulu Police Department to see about conducting a wellness check and darted back to Zack’s apartment.

Upon arriving, she hit some snags getting up to and inside his residence because it was a private, gated community. Veronica, along with the apartment security guard and Honolulu police officers who showed up from her earlier call, went to Zack’s door and knocked. Nothing. They kept knocking and were met with nothing but silence.

They checked the parking garage and found his car, so they thought he decided to walk into town. According to the Honolulu Police Department, there was not enough evidence showing self-harm to enter the residence without permission, so they left.

“I knew he did something,” she said. “I was married to Zack for more than 10 years and knew him better than anyone.”

She called Zack’s first sergeant to inform him and his chain of command about the events. She also called the property manager to obtain permission and a key to enter the apartment. The property manager obliged and would come right over.

“When Zack’s first sergeant showed up, I told him what I thought happened and he was blown out of the water,” she recalled. “He said that Zack led his unit’s resilience tactical pause the week prior and gave suicide prevention training the day before this happened.”

The property manager arrived and accompanied Veronica, the security guard and Zack’s first sergeant up to the locked apartment door. They opened the door and it was eerily dark inside, with a small amount of light coming from the bathroom door.

“The bathroom door was slightly ajar and I was like a bug moving towards a light,” she said. “I walked towards the light yelling his name. I pushed the door open and couldn’t believe what I saw.”

She found Zack’s lifeless body in the bathtub. At 31, he had shot and killed himself.

“I guess I screamed… I don’t really remember,” she said. “I blacked out. I stumbled out of the bathroom and collapsed. The first sergeant came over and just held me. I just remember crying and crying.”

Life turned upside down

Soon after, they moved to the lobby as Zack’s apartment became an active crime scene with first responders swarming everywhere.

After a few phone calls, some of her troops stopped by to show their support and offer assistance in any way they could.

“All I can remember thinking was, ‘I have a class to teach on Wednesday, I have (enlisted performance reports) to write, I have tech. sergeants I need to oversee,’” she recalls. “They said, ‘No you don’t. You don’t have to worry about any of that.’ I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do now.”

Veronica eventually made it back to her house after the tragedy. Her children were still awake and unaware of what happened.

She wondered how she was supposed to tell her children that their dad was gone.

“When I tell them, it’s going to be one of their core memories. I didn’t want to mess it up and make it worse for them,” she said. “After sitting with them a bit, I decided to give them one more night of peace before I tell them what happened and turn their whole world around.”

Her life had been completely turned upside down with the events that occurred that day. She knew she couldn’t sit idly by. She needed to do something.

She needed to try and enact some change to help save lives in the future.

Six months after Zack took his life, Veronica had a chance meeting with Chief Master Sgt. Manny Pineiro, the Air Force’s first sergeant special duty manager. A change was coming and she was the catalyst.

“I met with him and shared my story. I said, ‘People are dying because they can’t be with their kids,’” she said. “We already provide for our mil-to-mil personnel, so we need to figure something out for our military children, too.”

The story struck a chord with Pineiro and he later shared it with then-Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright.

On July 28, 2020, a little more than 10 months after Zack committed suicide, the Air Force released the updated Air Force Instruction 36-2110 to include the new court-ordered Child Custody Assignment or Deferment Consideration Program.

A never-ending fight

The new program would allow officials to facilitate the assignment or deferment of an Airman with a court-ordered child custody decree to the children’s geographic location. If the request is approved, it allows Airmen to co-parent because they would be assigned to a base within reasonable traveling distance to the other parent’s location.

“This change will help alleviate financial and emotional stress of being away from the kids,” Veronica says. “I don’t know how many Airmen it will help, but even if it changes one person’s mind on following through with suicide, then it’s an accomplishment.”

Although major Air Force policy change was enacted from her tragic experience, she knew there was still work to be done for her and her children. One area that helped the trio cope with the loss of their husband and father was honest and transparent communication.

“My kids and I talk about everything, and I try to normalize being sad or angry,” she said. “It’s OK to have those feelings. It is important to normalize the hard conversations and I constantly tell my kids, ‘No matter how hard it gets, I want you to know that suicide isn’t the answer.’ We have lived through it and seen it firsthand.

“I’m very transparent with my kids because they’ve had to grow up really fast, more so than some adults, and lived a lot of life in very little time. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a parent, so I constantly make sure they have what they need.”

Resilience is defined as the ability to cope and move forward in the face of a crisis — an action the Tannery family has been engaged in for quite some time now.

She says it’s something all individuals should practice because you never know when life is going to throw a curveball at you.

“You can’t always control circumstances and situations that happen to you, but you can control how you respond,” she added. “Sometimes, you have to take a knee until you can respond appropriately. For me, resiliency is recognizing that you need to step back and take care of yourself so you can eventually move forward again.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression and having suicidal thoughts, seek professional help right away. For the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, dial 988 and then press 1 or text 838255. Visit 988lifeline.org for more resources on suicide prevention and awareness.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available in the U.S. 24/7 at 988 via phone call, text or chat.