NEWS | Dec. 8, 2014

Surviving her father's suicide through a kindred love of photography

By Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Darron Salzer National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - A little more than 10 years have gone by since the life of Angela Powell-Woulfe changed forever. As a military suicide survivor, she is part of a club that few - if any - ever want to join.

It's a club made up of people just like her that has become her second family. Before she found that support several years ago, surviving just meant getting through the day-to-day.

Powell-Woulfe became a survivor in 2004 when her father, who had recently retired from the Michigan Army National Guard, made the choice to end his life.

It was a choice that would change his daughter, and define who she would become.

"It was a shock," Powell-Woulfe said. "It was all quite the shock."

Growing up, Powell-Woulfe said she had a very close relationship with her father, so close that they enjoyed the same hobbies together, most important of which was their kindred love of photography.

"My dad had a love for photography I think since he was very young, so it was one of the things that we kind of were able to do together," she said. "He taught me how to shoot film, way back when, and even though he wasn't doing it professionally, I would call him semi-professional. He really enjoyed it."

She was 16 when her dad bought her a camera of her own, and she then went through hundreds of rolls of film "and probably almost put him in the poor house having them developed," she said.

"Photography was something that came really naturally to me," said Powell-Woulfe, who is now a professional photographer. "I don't know if it was because there (is)a technical side to it as well, but I've always been kind of (a) technical person, and my dad was too, so I think it was something that we could kind of relate to and express ourselves and kind of capture what was going on around us."

It was through photographs that Powell-Woulfe and her dad had stayed in touch when he deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Powell-Woulfe said she sent her father photos of the events in her and her brother's lives that he was unable to be a part of during his deployment.

"He was also sending a lot of photos home," she said. "There were times he would just send rolls of film to get developed. It was a nice way to kind of feel connected while he was gone, especially with there being no e-mail or the Internet as we know it now."

Even after he came home, Powell-Woulfe said he had trunks and trunks of photos from his time overseas.

"A lot of them were pretty intense and things that he kind of wanted to keep locked away for understandable reasons," she said. "I saw some of those when I was much older, and I think that was a way for him to kind of share that experience with me and say, 'this is what it was like. It was not fun.'"

Her father's deployment wasn't fun for her either, Powell-Woulfe said.

"That was very, very, very difficult for me," she said. "I was 14 years old and very close with my dad and communication back then wasn't like it is now. The uncertainty and seeing things on TV - Scud missiles - was very scary because I was old enough to know what was going on. It was definitely an eye opener that these things go on and my dad, a (military police officer), is in the middle of it."

Her father's homecoming was a big deal to her and her family, Powell-Woulfe said, adding that he did a few more stints overseas, but nothing long term again.

"It was a big relief," she said. "We were very happy to have him home at that point, and glad that the conflict was as short as it was."

After a 25-year career in the military, her father made the decision to retire in 2003, which was good news according to Powell-Woulfe.

"It was about the time we were ramping up in Iraq and Afghanistan and I think he kind of decided it was a good time to call it quits," she said. "That was a huge relief I think for our family, that we weren't going to have to worry about those endless cycles of deployments."

Almost immediately after his retirement from the military, Powell-Woulfe said her father moved from Michigan to Florida to begin the next chapter of his life as a real estate agent and a charter captain for scuba dive trips, his other passion.

"He was ready to enjoy retirement. He was 50 years old and basically had a whole new opportunity ahead of him," she said, adding that he hoped to work with other retired veterans in helping them to purchase homes and retire in Florida, a way for him to stay connected to the military community.

"I think it was a big shift from being busy, busy, busy, go, go, go, and always moving, always working on something to 'I've got all this time on my hands, what do I do with myself now?'" she said.

It was a move that Powell-Woulfe said was bittersweet.

"I was glad and I think it was time for him to go ahead and move on out of Michigan," she said. "I was a little disappointed that he was going to be so far away, but I also knew that I would be moving soon anyway so I couldn't really begrudge him that opportunity to chase that dream, and I know it was a place where he could do some of the things he really enjoyed."

When she was 27 years old in April 2004, Powell-Woulfe went to visit her dad in Fort Myers, Florida.

"During that visit it was a little, I don't want to say tense, but a little disconnected," she said. "I could feel that there was something a little off, but I couldn't put my finger on it."

It would be the last time Powell-Woulfe would see her father alive.

"On the morning of Aug. 7 I received a phone call from my sister-in-law and she told me that I needed to come over right now," she said. "She wouldn't tell me anything over the phone, so I got over there and that's when my brother told me 'Dad died.'

"I'm just like, 'what do you mean Dad died? He's 51 years old, there's no way. He's healthy and I've never seen anyone as healthy as he is.'"

Making it even more unbelievable was the fact that Powell-Woulfe had received an email from her father the night before.

"It was disconnected, so I thought he's just busy or you know, whatever, and I had talked to him earlier that week on the phone, but nothing had set off those warning signs that he was [struggling]," she said.

After he left the military, Powell-Woulfe said her father struggled with being outside of the military community.

"All of his friends in Michigan were in the Guard, and his battle buddies all knew and had seen the same things and been spending time together for 20-some years," she said.

"He wasn't around that and didn't have that kind of support and camaraderie," Powell-Woulfe said.

Even though she knew her father had struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress, Powell-Woulfe said she and her family didn't worry about him when he moved so far away."

He seemed pretty happy," she said. "He was in a new relationship and had big goals with chartering that dive business and getting into real estate.

Powell-Woulfe and her family were devastated by the sudden loss.

"After his passing, especially initially, I just went into 'taking care of business' mode," she said. "All of the little business of death that is necessary. Even during the memorial service … I'm sitting by myself in the front row, back straight, no emotion, just kind of like 'I'm there. I am strong.'"

Powell-Woulfe said it was a year before she really processed her grief and the loss of her father, describing it as "falling apart," but it was even longer before she was again able to pick up a camera.

"It was just another reminder, like a lot of things that I avoided that were triggers," she said. "I had to kind of work up to it.

"It was early 2006 when I thought 'I kind of miss doing this,' and I remembered growing up with all of these photographs and I couldn't imagine having a family and them not having the same experience," she said.

She didn't just miss the process of creating photographs, Powell-Woulfe said having a camera back in her hands was the healing process that she needed to help her cope with the loss of her father and move on with her life once again.

"It's very healing and it also allows me to express myself," she said. "Using photography, I can kind of express that if I need to get away and have a break, I can take my camera and go."

It helps her to keep her father close, she said, and remember him for who he was.

"My dad and I enjoyed it so much as a together activity, that even though he's not there I find myself thinking of him and it helps bring me closer to him without remembering the way he died because that's not who he was," she said. "It was the other things like photography, sailing, diving, and camping and all of the crazy stories we have of him - that's who he was."

Powell-Woulfe also connected with a community of support, many of whom also had lost a military family member to suicide.

"For a long time I thought I was completely alone," she said. "Suicide is just something that people don't want to talk about. There's that stigma - that horrible, horrible stigma - but being alone for so long and not realizing that there are a lot of people out there who are military suicide survivors, it was very important for me to connect with them. I think my healing process accelerated tenfold once I finally found that there was a community and that I wasn't alone."

Powell-Woulfe said it's important for those struggling to cope with a military suicide, or those with thoughts of suicide, to understand that they are not alone.

"It's okay to talk about it if you're suffering from depression or you are really struggling with PTSD and you think that (suicide) is your only way out. It's not," she said. "It creates a legacy when you do take that way out, and it's not a great legacy."

It's a legacy of her father that Powell-Woulfe said she continues to struggle with.

"You think about it all the time and how things could have been different, but it's just not always productive," she said. "It's better to focus on the good times you did have and the things you did say and did do, and make sure you pass that down as the legacy, instead of playing the 'what if' game."

Powell-Woulfe said it took years for her to stop playing that game, and acknowledge that it had ultimately been her father's choice.

"I remind myself of that every once in a while when I am having one of my down days, or I am really missing him," she said. "It's a good little mantra of mine, that I didn't choose this."

Over time, and with support from military suicide survivor and suicide prevention organizations, Powell-Woulfe was able to begin moving forward.

"My coping mechanism now is (to) do what I can - tell my story - to make sure that there is not another daughter going through this, or a wife, sister, a son, parents, grandparents or friends going through this," she said.

"Maybe by helping someone else, I can prevent someone else from having to go through that horrible grief journey," Powell-Woulfe said. "That's kind of become my saving grace, I think, in helping me move forward."

That, and photography.

"I would hope he'd be very proud," she said. "That was always very important to me and the fact that I am actually making money doing it, and doing very well for myself, I think he would be very proud and that means a lot to me."

For Powell-Woulfe, it's a way for her father to live on through their kindred love of photography.

"I'm doing something that he would have enjoyed and probably would have liked to have done himself. I hope he's very proud," Powell-Woulfe said, wiping the tears from her eyes.

(Editor's note: If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, please contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.)