Douglas Caldas was the life of any party, according to his brother and girlfriend, a guy who could bring two disparate groups together just by pulling off a joke. He was a hard worker with track record of success at his job. But on Friday, the Air Force senior airman from New Jersey, who had been stationed at MacDill Air Force Base for four years, stabbed himself to death, according to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office. Caldas, one of more than 100 confirmed military suicides so far this year, was 25. Suicide is a problem the military is struggling to handle. There were 488 confirmed military suicides around the globe last year and another 27 suspected, compared with 298 deaths in combat. The trend is continuing this year - 102 confirmed and 66 suspected suicides, compared with 75 combat deaths, according to figures compiled by the Tribune last month from records kept by the individual services. Last year, the Pentagon introduced a suicide prevention plan that called for increased responsibility by military leaders; improved quality and access to health care; elevated mental fitness; and increased research into suicide prevention.
Yet men and women continue to kill themselves. "There have been so many (suicides) lately," said Wynn Dressler, 28, an Air Force staff sergeant, who had been living with Caldas for the past 10 months. "When I was in Turkey, there were three when I was there. I know another girl who was here prior, she committed suicide. Another guy came back and his wife was cheating on him. He blew his head off in base police cop car." Dressler said she had been on the telephone with Caldas, who was in a friend's apartment when he killed himself. She declined to elaborate, but said that Caldas was at first her best friend since meeting each other at MacDill, where they served in the same unit. Then they became more. "He was amazing," said Dressler, his girlfriend. The two had broken up, she said, but were trying to reconcile. "He knew how to light up a room. He always had everybody laughing." Caldas, she said, "loved video games. He was kind of like a closet nerd. He got along with everybody. He was just overall an amazing person. He touched so many lives," Caldas grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Union High School in 2007, said his brother, Erik Caldas, of New Jersey. Undecided about his future, Caldas joined the Air Force after talking with a friend. "He talked it over with my parents, and they said 'hey, whatever you want to do, we support you,'" said Erik Caldas. "My brother was a very, very loving, caring person," said Erik Caldas. "He stood out in a crowd. He was always the jokester." Both Dressler and Erik Caldas, 29, said that if there were any long term warning signs, they never saw them. "Honestly," said Dressler, "there were no signs given to me or his closest friends, He had not been deployed, He did not have PTSD, Alcohol was involved, but beyond that, there were no indicators, none at all," Erik Caldas agreed. "This is the biggest shock ever," said Erik Caldas. "When he drank, he was a whole different person to the extreme. When he was happy, he was happy to the extreme, but if something bothered him to the extreme, it bothered him as well." According to the medical examiner's report, Caldas and his girlfriend had broken up and he had sent text messages to her and a friend saying he was going to kill himself. Police found a "samurai-type sword" next to his body when they arrived at the apartment on Westshore Boulevard where he killed himself, according to the report. Dressler said the two were trying to get back together. Caldas had never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, said Dressler. Though he wanted to go back to school and was looking beyond a career in the Air Force, Caldas was "ambitious, a hard worker, one of the hardest workers we have," said Dressler. His service record bears that out. Caldas, a medical diagnostics imaging technologist with 6th Medical Support Squadron, had earned the Medical Support Squadron Airman of the Quarter and was a member of Air Mobility Command Diagnostic Imaging Team of the Year, according to the 6th Air Mobility Wing. "On behalf of the MacDill family I want to extend our sympathy to the friends and family of our fallen Airman during this time of sorrow," said Col. Scott DeThomas, 6th Air Mobility Wing commander, in an email media release on Sunday. Base officials could not immediately comment on the number of suicides of base personnel. Dressler said there will be a memorial service for Caldas on base Wednesday. His body will be shipped to New Jersey, where there will be a funeral for him this weekend, she said. Final details have not been made. "It is sad it happened the way it did," said Dressler. "It is actually horrible. The world is at a loss." email@example.com (813) 259-7629 @haltman