AFRL researcher takes Wingman spirit to heart

  • Published
  • By John Schutte
  • Human Effectiveness Directorate
Duty, honor and courage are often viewed as fundamental values of the United States military. To many--military or civilian--these values are guiding beacons for life. 

In the Air Force they are the fabric of a new suicide assistance program called Wingman Boldface. At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the program's bright yellow-and-black pocket card encourages Airmen to recognize suicidal tendencies in colleagues and friends and know how to seek help.
But when Lt. Jeremiah Betz stepped onto a shadowy ledge of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge at Gig Harbor, Wash., late on the evening of Sept. 9, he didn't think about military or civilian values. He had no time to assess warning signs or contact a social service agency.
Moving quickly in the quiet, windy darkness 187 feet above the wavy black waters of Puget Sound, Betz had only one option--to physically restrain a young man intent on leaping to his death. 

Betz, a research chemist at the Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate, was near the end of a three-hour drive with his wife, Megan, and 18-month-old son, Linus, after visiting family in nearby Ellensburg. Shortly after 11:00 p.m. he noticed a car stopped in the right lane of the bridge. 

"My mom's car has broken down on the mile-long bridge before and I wanted to offer help, to get the person's car started or offer them my cell phone," said Betz, who grew up in the area and attended Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
As he stopped in front of the parked car, he caught a glimpse of a man near the bridge's railing. Walking from his car toward that man, Betz met a third man approaching from his right. As their eyes met they realized the situation; the man standing between them on a narrow I-beam outside the protective railing was preparing to jump.
"He shouted to us to leave him alone. He was not holding onto the railing and I realized he could jump at any moment," Betz said of the distraught man, who was about six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. "I grabbed his shirt and the other man grabbed his right arm." 

As the potential jumper struggled, his shirt ripped away and he tried to jump. Betz grabbed his left arm. The other man, a security guard with Boeing Company, looped an arm around the jumper's neck and chest. Neither rescuer could have single-handedly held back the jumper, according to Betz, who at age 26 is a lean 6-feet-4, 200 pounds.
Together, Betz and the security guard pulled the man backwards over the railing to the ground, where they held him--aided by the security officer's handcuffs--until police arrived a few minutes later.
"Even then he was trying to catch us off-guard and get away," Betz said. "He was pretty upset. He wasn't belligerent or mad at the world, he was just sad."
"It may sound silly when you take suicide training like Wingman Boldface; I was briefed on it. It may not make sense until you realize that people are really fragile and they have emotions that go up and down and can be susceptible to bad things happening," Betz said. 

Betz said the situation "was scary, but adrenalin takes care of that. You don't want to see someone die in front of you. The Air Force doesn't train you to pull someone off a bridge, but they teach you to do what needs to be done." 

He credits his personal religious beliefs, his upbringing and his Air Force training for preparing him to handle the situation. He believes he was meant to be there. In fact, the Betz family had originally planned to spend the night in Ellensburg but decided at the last minute to drive home that evening. 

"I think it was God's will that we came back early...the logical thing would not have been to drive back late that night," he said. 

The ordeal lasted about 10 minutes, but left Betz shaken physically and emotionally. When authorities requested an incident report, his hands were trembling so badly he had to dictate the information to his wife and she wrote it. 

"I always thought you could rise above the situation and control your emotions; maybe not,' Betz said.
But you can let duty, honor and courage guide your actions.