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Tough jobs: How one reservist copes with tragedy

Master Sgt. Jessica Kendziorek is the 403rd Wing Public Affairs superintendent at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. She is also a crime scene investigator for the Gulfport Police Department, Mississippi. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Master Sgt. Jessica Kendziorek)

Master Sgt. Jessica Kendziorek is the 403rd Wing Public Affairs superintendent at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. She is also a crime scene investigator for the Gulfport Police Department, Mississippi. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Master Sgt. Jessica Kendziorek)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- I couldn’t do your job!

I don’t know how you do it?

How do you deal with it, seeing the things you do?

These are three things I hear all of the time when people find out what my civilian job is. My response to this has always been, “Most people can’t and shouldn’t have to. Someone has to do it. And, I just do.” Now I know these do not seem to be good answers, but I can explain.

You may be asking, “What does she do for a living?” Well, I am a crime scene investigator, and not the kind you see on television. There is nothing glamorous or even pretty about my career choice. I see people on the worst day of their life or actually after their life is over. Sometimes that life is taken accidentally, but most of the time it was taken intentionally, whether by someone else or by their own hand.

I see things people have nightmares about which ranges from accidents that leave a person trapped inside a car to murder scenes where there are multiple victims. I have seen beatings, shootings, stabbings, and even vehicles being used as a weapon.

With only a couple exceptions, the worst things I see and deal with are suicides, but not because of the actual scene, but because of the loved ones left behind who have to deal with the loss.

Suicide. This isn’t the word you want have to tell a grieving family. It also is not what they want to hear. They want to blame someone. Anyone. Because to accept that a family member committed suicide is admitting that something was wrong, that they couldn’t help, or that they didn’t do anything.

First, let me say, based on my experience, not all suicides are preventable.

Some suicides are committed at a moment’s notice because of something the person finds out that they can’t live with or even without. These suicides aren’t planned, so there are no hints or signs in the person’s behavior that they ever thought about it. Most of the time these happen within a day or two of the person coming to the realization of not being able to handle their situation.

I have seen the evidence of how they try to make it easier on their loved ones by pulling all of their personal information out, such as a will, power of attorney, and funeral requests, so it is easy to find. Then they have left a note to their loved ones telling them why (at least their why) and then ended their life all within that day or short time frame.

These are hard, but by no means are they the hardest.

The most difficult cases to deal with involve children: pre-teen and teenage suicides.

For me, walking into a scene, hearing a family say they don’t know why, or how this could happen, then follow up with “I know he/she seemed a little depressed lately, but always said ‘I’m okay’ when asked,” is one of the toughest things I deal with.

One reason is, I know the signs and what to look for. I realize that not everyone does. But even just being a little nosy about changes going on in a loved one’s life could make a difference.

“Children are resilient.” I have heard that so many times in my life that it sounds like it should be true, but it just isn’t always true. Children need guidance, support, but mostly they need an adult to be there, it doesn’t have to be a parent, it could be an aunt or uncle. But they need them for stability, because with that stability, they know they are able to share their feelings, what is going on and have someone listen and help them deal with the issues. Just be there.

So many times the signs are there for children and adults alike, but they are missed. If the signs were noticed, paid attention to, and then help given to handle it, these deaths could have been prevented.

For children, it can happen when others start to bully them or when family issues arise, children think it’s their fault, their signs tend to be a little more noticeable. Adults are a little harder, because their reasons can come from anything or everything and can move at a slower or less noticeable pace.

These signs are simple things, for example, when an otherwise messy person suddenly becomes a clean freak or the complete opposite, it is noticeable. A person who has always been outgoing, plays sports, or even just likes to hang out with others slowly starts quitting the activities they like to do, not going places they used to go, or even not talking to others and starts staying home and being by themselves, these are some signs.

For me, I see everything after it happens, but that means that in a room that otherwise looks normal, I see what’s wrong, what’s missing, or even worse what is there. While this sounds like a great ability and pretty easy, the being able to see what isn’t right with this picture, you couldn’t be more wrong. I have to be objective and in some instances hard, to look at a scene and find the answers. But that ability is why I do what I do, because I see the signs. I see what was missed.

So for me, to be able to see all that I see and being able “to deal with it” is the real answer to all of the questions and comments. I cope by being able to talk to family, friends, and especially my co-workers, who understand more than anyone what it is like.

But unlike some, I also have the Air Force Reserve family. I get to completely change my point of view over a drill weekend, by writing or taking photos of good things, hard workers, and even the fun times. Yes, I work hard on those days, some longer than others, but that time spent in the office, out of the office, laughing and having fun with people makes it worth it.

I deal with these things the best way I know how and move on, because to dwell on the negative in life is just going to drag me down. What good would I be to those families who need some closure, if I get dragged down? I do this job to help the ones who are still alive get that closure or find the person who committed the crime. And finally, those who say they couldn’t do my job are right, and being able to recognize it is a great step, because if you can’t let go of the negative, my job will beat you down, and that doesn’t help those families.

Working these scenes and dealing with a family’s tragedy and heartbreak is daunting and sometimes even haunting to live with, but I do it because I can. I recognize the signs, or evidence if you will, but most importantly I know what to look for. I have the training from experience, college and from the Air Force Reserve to see these things, but for others they have to look for help, but just know it is out there. You can look up websites to find out the signs for suicide, ask at your doctor’s office, and even clergy can help.

The most important thing to remember is that if you think something is wrong, don’t just let it go, keep on asking, keep on watching, and keep on being there. You could save someone’s life.