Sean’s Room: How Joint Base is working to combat suicides in military

New program provides immediate 1-on-1 counseling for Joint Base personnel (active duty and veterans) in mental health crisis

Senior Airman Connor Runkle, crew chief for the 305th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst was going about his daily duties and handling the usual ups and downs of military life a little more than a year ago when he was summoned to a commander’s call which shattered his day.

Runkle was told that an airman had died by suicide the day prior. He then found out it was one of his closest friends.

Suicides in the military

In a report released in October 2023, the Department of Defense reported that 492 suicides of active-duty personnel took place in 2022 (this includes National Guard and reservists). While this was fewer suicides than the previous year (524), the rate of suicides per 100,000 went up 3%.

The report also said 168 military family members committed suicide during this same year.

The report cited reasons for suicide as behavioral health issues (45%), relationship issues (42%), workplace issues and legal issues (26% each) and financial issues (10%).

According to the numbers, the rate of suicide among active military is similar to the general U.S. population, but the numbers surge drastically when veteran suicides are included.

“I never met anyone with as many goals and ambitions,” Runkle said about the friend he lost. “His life was so organized. And, just like that, he was gone.”

That was Jan. 13, 2023.

Only six weeks later, on Feb. 25, while he was still processing the loss of one friend, Runkle was summoned to another commander’s call where he received a second sledgehammer blow of bad news.

Another airman from the same dorm had committed suicide. It was another friend of Runkle’s.

“It certainly blindsided me,” he said. “None of us ever thought this could happen.”

Runkle noted that both of his friends had talked about issues they were having. Both were a long way from home for the first time — one was from the state of Washington and the other from the Philippines; both were having some difficulty adjusting to military life and managing the stress of dealing with their leadership.

Both became part of a troubling statistic: Nearly 500 active-duty personnel took their own lives in 2022, according to the Department of Defense.

Slowing this trend is not easy. Runkle noted both his friends were using mental health organizations on the base, but, “Neither was sure he had a safe place where he could go to talk.”

Shortly after the loss of his friends, Runkle began attending training sessions, including the military’s Integrated Prevention and Resiliency Program, which is designed to help servicemen and -women obtain the resources they need to thrive in military life, including mental and emotional help.

“I needed to understand what happened and I wanted to know if there was something more I could do,” Runkle said.


As Runkle began his training at the Joint Base, Col. Elizabeth Hanson, commanding officer of the 305th Air Mobility Wing under which Runkle’s squadron falls, organized a Joint Base leadership meeting to discuss the ongoing mental health issues.

Christopher Locke, who had recently created a “mental health safe haven for young adults” in Newark, Delaware, called Sean’s House, was invited by Hanson to be a guest speaker. Locke named the facility after his son, Sean, who committed suicide in 2018 at the age of 23. Sean’s House has had more than 24,000 visitors since its founding.

Col. Elizabeth Hanson, left, with Gen. Mike Minihan.

Hanson, a 25-year veteran of the Air Force with more than 3,500 flying hours (578 of them in combat), left the leadership meeting convinced a civilian-focused facility like Sean’s House could be adapted to help address the mental health issues for the men and women at the Joint Base.

“What resonated with me was that Chris and his team were available at any time to speak with anyone,” Hanson said. “I began to wonder, ‘How can we do that?’”

Hanson assembled a charter team and told them the goal was to create a safe place where anyone at the Joint Base, regardless of rank or service branch, could come and find readily accessible peers for a safe, anonymous conversation. Sean’s Room also would be open to civilian workers at the base.

“The men and women in the military are highly motivated and mission-focused,” Hanson said. “They need time to pause and to breathe and to relax — to do things like take a walk or read a book.”

She directed her team to “determine what Sean’s Room would look like and what training was required, work through the legal questions, and make sure Sean’s Room did not impede any services already available.”

Runkle joined Hanson’s charter team in April 2023. By the end of May, he was called into her office, where he was surprised to hear that he was to be the new team lead.

“His drive and his passion to make a difference comes through, especially after his own experience,” Hanson said. “It was an easy choice.”

But not an easy task.


The military can be like Corporate America. Runkle soon learned his top responsibility was to explain and defend the plans for Sean’s Room in a seemingly endless stream of meetings.

“I felt very intimidated at first,” he said, acknowledging he was only in his second year of service in the Air Force and had not yet interacted with high-ranking officers.

Staff Sgt. James Balster, left, with Gen. Mike Minihan.

“It got to the point where I had to be very good in defending my ideas, regardless of the ranks of the officers I was speaking with.”

Runkle received valuable help from Staff Sgt. James Balster, an Indiana native and 10-year Air Force veteran who was serving in the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron of the 305th when he heard about Sean’s Room. After expressing interest in helping, Balster began a two-month rotation working in Sean’s Room in the spring of 2023.

“As a flyer, I was more used to interactions with officers, so I was able to help Connor navigate questions and objections that came up in the briefings,” Balster said.

The objections centered around two points, Runkle recalled.

“There were some who doubted people would use Sean’s Room, so they thought the exercise was pointless — others thought Sean’s Room was redundant with other mental health services already available,” he said.

Runkle and Balster met the objections head-on.

“We explained that nothing like Sean’s Room exists in the Air Force,” Runkle said. “This is a new model created by a group of people who care to support anyone across the Joint Base no matter their rank. It is less regimented, more anonymous and involves peer-to-peer counseling at the lowest enlisted level.”

“I teach ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training),” Balster said. “One thing we do is ask people this question: If they were having suicidal thoughts, who would they talk to or confide in? We gave them the choice of a medical professional or psychiatrist, a clergy member, a senior officer or a close friend. The overwhelming response was always a close friend. That shows how much we need Sean’s Room.”

Leadership at the Joint Base agreed.

Col. Anthony Smith, the overall installation commander of the Joint Base as well as commander of the 87th Air Base Wing stationed there, saw things as a numbers game.

“The more options we have for individuals to seek assistance when they need it, the better,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing the positive results it yields to our members.”


Sean’s Room officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 10, 2023, although volunteers had been seeing visitors since July.

This formal opening was attended by four-star Air Force Gen. Michael Minihan, who leads Air Mobility Command, one of the Air Force’s global military commands and under which McGuire Air Force Base falls. Minihan’s presence was an eye-opener for many.

Senior Airman Jessika “Jessie” James.

“Gen. Minihan is responsible for more than 400,000 people in his command and he came here to see and advocate for our work,” Runkle said proudly. “He showed that it matters.”

Minihan’s presence was also a signal to many that the military was looking to expunge the stigma traditionally associated with those seeking help with mental health issues.

“Gen. Minihan is vocal proponent of mental health, and he is very passionate about it,” Hanson said.

So are many others.

Jessika James has been in the Air Force for five years — four of them at McGuire. She became a jet engine mechanic in the 305th. She prefers Jessie to Jessika and, yes, she is a descendent of the famous Missouri outlaw.

She is now a volunteer at Sean’s Room, but her journey there was a brutal one.

“I lost one of my best friends to suicide,” she said. “The ripple effect of suicide is very powerful, and it affects your life and your work. My friend always seemed to speak highly of her life, and I didn’t see the signs. I have always had some guilt about that. This was a big motivation for me to get involved.”

Compounding her stress, James was subjected to multiple and repeated severe work-related traumas not long after joining the Air Force.

“I had no outlet until I came to Sean’s Room,” she said.

James credits Sean’s Room and Hanson’s leadership as the reasons she stayed in the Air Force.

“I have a place here,” James said. “Sean’s Room helped facilitate my healing. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and share what you have been through, which makes others more ready to share. And hearing the stories of other people fostered a sense of belonging that I never felt elsewhere.”

James credits the peer-to-peer model and the immediate availability of peers for the effectiveness of Sean’s Room.

“You can call facilities for help, and they all want your information over the phone and then they evaluate your situation based on your answers,” she said. “The appointment you make could be months out.”


Since its opening, Sean’s Room has seen more than 900 people representing a variety of military service branches, 11 of whom admitted they had thoughts of suicide. They were immediately connected with the appropriate mental health resources.

How can you help?

A dinner to honor the volunteers and supporters of Sean’s Room will be held Tuesday night. The event is expected to draw more than 100 people, including many of the top leaders at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

If you want to help — either by providing pro bono services or making a financial contribution to help the operation — reach out to the author at

“That’s 11 lives we think we have saved,” Runkle said proudly.

The Sean’s Room staff has grown to 40 volunteer peers, and it is temporarily housed in a separate room within the Passenger Terminal at McGuire.

The staff hopes to move to a more permanent home later this year and is currently reaching out to military and civilian organizations to help them marshal the resources they need to add more peers and create a 24/7 response line.

The story of Sean’s Room has transcended the Joint Base. According to Hanson, five Air Force bases from around the country have reached out for information with the intent of starting their own versions of Sean’s Room.

Runkle attributes this success to the tireless advocacy of Hanson and the different approach that Sean’s Room emphasizes.

“Sean’s Room’s offers volunteered hope rather than manufactured solutions,” he said.

Ray Zardetto is a freelance writer who covers issues involving the military and veterans. Reach him at or call 908-391-5540.

Training the trainers

Donna Sand, a certified instructor at the Cherry Hill-based firm Dillon Marcus, leads a series of pro bono training sessions for the counselors at Sean’s Room.

Donna Sand.

“We seek the positive; we want people to endorse themselves and their accomplishments, not indict themselves.”

Tara Marcus, co-founder of Dillon Marcus, a management consultant firm that offers a series of programs to help executives reach their full potential, also helps. One of her programs is called “Spot-It,” which invokes a four-step process that helps people identify the causes of their stress and anxiety.

“Spot-It works for peer-to-peer counselling because it is more of a tool than a therapy,” she said.

Sand and Marcus believe “Spot-It” provides insight into those having mental health issues.

Tara Marcus.

“We find it isn’t always a major trauma or life-threatening situation that leads to these issues,” Marcus said. “It’s the trivialities that do it — they build up if they are not dealt with.”

Sand makes this analogy.

“I liken it to snowflakes,” she said. “Each problem or negative thing — even the smallest annoyance — can build up and build up. You want to address the problems before the snowflakes become an avalanche.”

Most of all, you want to do it one-on-one.

“The thing to understand is that many people coming to Sean’s Room are missing a human connection,” Sand said.