Senior Airman Alex Briley met the love of her life shortly after arriving at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, her first duty station.
Briley, a perianesthesia technician assigned to the 673d Surgical Services Squadron, met U.S. Army Spc. Brandon Diaz shortly after arriving on base, and the two were quickly inseparable.
“Our first date, we went to get pizza, but it was during COVID,” recalled Briley. “So we just sat on his truck outside my dorm and ate pizza. And since that day, we’d never spent a day apart. It was just an instant connection.”
The two were a pair meant to be – both driven, dedicated in their service, with a desire to excel.
Diaz, a forward observer with the 25th Infantry Division, was also new to JBER and quickly rising through the ranks of the Army.
“He always took his job very seriously, and knew that he needed to be the best at it,” said Briley. “He craved knowledge, he wanted to be the best … He was brand new, too, so it was like both of us kind of learning how to be individual people and like our jobs in the military, but also very much just like falling in love the whole time.”
This drive to excel bonded the pair, as Briley also found herself building a reputation as hardworking, motivated and talented in the challenging and fast-paced JBER hospital emergency room. Her work ethic caught the attention of MSgt. Amanda Elmandorf, who became a valuable mentor to Briley.
“I took her under my wing,” recalled Elmandorf. “She just seemed to have this little spark in her. And so she and I became pretty close, even after I moved on from the emergency department.”
After months of courtship, Diaz and Briley knew they were meant to be. The couple got engaged, and were married six months later in Feb. 2021.
“He was the best husband, he always brought me flowers and would wake me up in the morning with, ‘Do you want breakfast? Or do you want this? What do you want to do today?’ Very caring,” said Briley. “I was struggling mentally a lot when I moved up here at first, and I hadn’t gotten into a good routine. He was very understanding of that and would always try to find ways to support me, even if he had his own stuff going on.”
On Oct. 18, 2021, Briley returned from work excited for their weekend plans. They were visiting friends for a baby shower; Briley and Diaz were to be the godparents – the baby was even named after Brandon. But the couple did not make it out that weekend.
Briley returned home that night to find her husband had died by suicide.
Her world collapsed around her. In a state of shock, she was quickly engulfed by a whirlwind of people and paperwork while she stood, barely coherent, in the eye of the storm attempting to process what happened.
“I was in a daze for weeks. I had to fill out papers and meet with people, a ton of different people,” Briley described woefully. “I don’t remember all the people I met. I don’t remember all the papers that I signed. I don’t remember eating, I lost like 30 pounds. Mentally, I didn’t want to be here anymore, because I’d just lost everything. He was my everything.”
The classic warning signs weren’t there. Diaz was happy, motivated and newly married. Outside of a turbulent relationship with family and normal day-to-day stressors, there was no indication of any problem whatsoever.
“Working in healthcare, I know the usual signs – being detached, not making plans, everything kind of strays from the norm – but the dog was taken care of and the house was cleaned,” remembered Briley. “He cooked himself dinner. He had plans to go hunting the next morning with a group of friends.”
Briley lost all motivation; nothing that moved her before mattered anymore. She turned to drinking to stay in a daze, to avoid having to confront the realities of what had happened, and those that lay ahead.
“I’ve looked back on it almost every single day since it happened,” said Briley. “And it’s the thing that lives with me the most is like, is there anything else I could have done?”
While the Air Force afforded her time to recover, a return to work still loomed on the horizon. The ER, with its long hours, high tempo and regular mental health emergencies coming through the door, was no longer a safe space for Briley. Her efforts at work prior to the incident had also earned her a shot at the hyper-competitive senior airman below-the-zone, which her leadership was pushing for her to return early and compete for, despite it being the very last thing on her mind.
Lost, anguished and struggling to find a reason to continue, Briley turned to her father for guidance.
“After the funeral I got back and I talked to my dad and was like, ‘I have no idea how I’m going to go forward, I’m supposed to go back to work. And I’m supposed to go do this BTZ board, I don’t care about any of it.”
Briley’s father responded with a statement that shaped how Briley looked at her future.
“Well, Brandon cared about your career.”
This shift in perspective changed everything. Briley found a reason to move forward again, one she cared deeply about.
“Brandon would not want me to do anything hasty or rash. And he would want me to continue living and progressing in my career. Keeping that thought in my head is what made me be able to kind of put the uniform back on, go to work, put on a smile …. I just couldn’t stop thinking about how I was going to become me again, [that] I need to stop drinking. Brandon wouldn’t want me to be like this. I need to live.”
Briley’s path to wellness was not a quick or easy one, but she was able to find support in the people and resources around her. She recalled an outpouring of support from Diaz’s unit and chain of command – all the way to his brigade commander – that continues to this day.
A number of services across the installation provided support and helped her sort out the paperwork, financials and other official needs that were once so overwhelming. She recalls these services being incredibly beneficial, particularly in a time when she lacked the mental clarity to handle these needs alone. What had been most impactful, however, were the kind, caring people who helped guide her through the process.
The people surrounding her who provided genuine, heartfelt support – not just checking the necessary boxes – were instrumental in Briley’s recovery. She encountered a number of amazing people who went above and beyond to help her throughout the process, including her mentor Elmandorf.
“[Elmandorf] was one of those people that you know she’s not just saying this to check a box, she truly cares about me, and I will forever be thankful for her,” Briley said. “I was open with her first about details and everything about how I was actually feeling, and she would guide me into getting my thoughts in order when I was feeling super anxious and just mind-jumbled.”
Eventually Briley was able to get her feet back underneath her. The healing process was only just beginning, but she was able to start building herself back up again.
Then, exactly two months after her husband passed, Briley was due to show up for the BTZ board.
“I didn’t want to come back to work at all. I wanted to stay in my house and rot, honestly. But my dad reminded me that, no, you need to do this for Brandon. He would want you to be successful in your career, and he knows that you deserve it. So having him is like my motivation to come back like full force and go to my BTZ board, get in my blues and answer the questions.”
Backed by this confidence and desire to succeed to honor her late husband, Briley was able to secure a BTZ slot. She pinned on her new rank at nearly the exact same time Diaz would have been promoted as well, providing Briley with a sign that she was on the right path.
As she continued to reintegrate into the work center, Briley made it a personal mission to try and use her experience to help others.
When the ER would receive a mental health emergency, she began actively seeking those rooms instead of avoiding them to make sure patients had access to a person who truly understood what they were going through.
“I realize that I’m not going to make a difference just being scared of ever coming face-to-face with that situation again. So then I went to everybody’s room who came in for mental health emergencies so I could listen to their story, and understand what their feelings were and their behaviors. I talked to their leadership and their friends, asking what they have been noticing, what has [the patient] been saying, to kind of get all these new perspectives, so I won’t miss anything, ever again.”
Two years after her husband’s death, Briley continues to be an advocate for mental health, resilience and suicide awareness. She is working towards becoming a trainer for the Air Force’s suicide prevention program, and shares her story openly to work towards normalizing discussions surrounding mental health.
“It took me two years to say I didn’t miss anything, it just happened,” said Briley. “And it’s frustrating. I want to make the conversation open and normal. I want people to know that it’s okay to talk about your struggles, and to seek that help.”
“I think you don’t want to see it as making her stronger, because I think she was already a very strong person,” said Elmandorf, on Briley’s resilience and her drive to help those around her. “It just showed how strong she really is.”
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Service members and their families, as well as civilian employees of the Department of Defense, have access to mental health providers in a variety of forms. Find non-medical counseling that is both free and confidential at MilitaryOneSource.com; civilian employees can contact the Employee Assistance program at 907-384-0863.
Https://tricare.mil/mentalhealth is your resource for mental health services and offers a telehealth option. If you or someone you know needs help immediately, please call the Military and Veterans Crisis Line at 988 and press one.
Suicide Hotline: 988
Military OneSource: 800-342-9647
JBER Mental Health: 907-580-2181
JBER Chaplains: 907-552-4422
|JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, AK, US