Written by Elizabeth Blue
Major Robert Whitney, or Bob to his family and friends, was an Intelligence Officer at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. An accomplished Air Force officer and a 2008 Air Force Academy graduate, he was 12 years into his career. A strong leader as well as a strong follower, he had all the skills to continue to move up through the ranks.
He was known by his family as the happiest, most positive guy in any room; a lovable, friendly guy with a contagious smile. His big, toothy grin went hand-in-hand with his positive outlook on life.
Bob’s brother, Tom, wrote of him: “For those who didn’t know him or would like a refresher, he was dorky and nerdy yet confident at the same time, so much so that others couldn’t help but laugh… always with him and never at him. And that combination made him cool. He truly epitomized selflessness. And I don’t mean he was selfless, I mean he was SELFLESS. He didn’t just give when it was convenient, he gave when it was hard. He worried about everyone else’s needs before addressing his own. As a teammate, leader, follower, parent, he made sure all others were taken care of first. Stomachs filled. Wounds healed. Pains comforted. Everyone came first before himself, no matter if they were blood relatives or complete strangers, superior or subordinate, friend or foe.”
Tom remembers attending Bob’s pinning-on ceremony, where he was getting promoted to Major. This promotion was a result of both Bob’s loyalty to the military for over 10 years, and to his commitment to excellence in each position he held. Bob also earned the prestigious title of Field Grade Officer of the year, which he received for being deemed the best Intelligence Officer among the ranks of Majors, Lieutenant Colonels, and Colonels in all of U.S. Strategic Command.
Bob also struggled deeply with depression, and took his own life in early 2020.
When asked what factors might have played a part in his depression, his brother Tom shares, “With folks in the military, there can be a challenge of identity and trying to figure out that identity and purpose. I think that at times, Bob struggled to find that purpose within the military.”
Early on, when Bob had graduated, he was slated to be a pilot. While going through pilot training, he ended up washing out -- meaning he wasn’t able to keep up to speed with the training and graduate as a pilot. After this experience, he had a bout with low self-esteem and depression. He was able to bounce out of that and in fact: “I called him ‘Bob 2.0’ after that episode because he came out of that better than ever before,” Tom says.
Bob then retrained to the intelligence field, where he had quite a knack for his job and really started to enjoy his work.
Later in his career, the positions he held put a toll on his well-being.
“He had some strenuous positions, one being the executive officer to the J2 for USSTRATCOM. This meant he was the direct aide to the top General in command of all Intelligence-related work for USSTRATCOM. Before he was the Exec for J2, he worked shift work with long hours and a rotating schedule. One week he would have the morning shift; the next, afternoon; then night shift. That’s a lot of wear and tear on the body. Working all hours of the day, he’d have to sleep during the day at home while everyone else in his family was awake. Trying to have enough energy to have a successful work life as well as a healthy family life would have been very grueling. Shift work can also be a thankless job behind the scenes. No one really knows about the work you’ve done when it gets done in the right way.”
In the months before his death, Bob fell into a serious depression.
Tom shares that the Air Force tried to help him as best they could. On the job, he was asked whether he had ever had suicidal thoughts. Bob, always honest and not one to lie, answered that yes, he had. Due to regulations, he then spent some time in a mental institution so he could be monitored and they could make sure he was okay. He took some time off, went on medication, and had multiple meetings a week with a psychologist and psychiatrist to try and find the best solutions for him.
“In his depression, Bob somehow thought he wasn’t qualified or competent at his job -- even though he had been awarded some of the highest awards in his career field at his time. There was some disconnect in his identity or sense of purpose. No one will ever really know why. He just felt lost during that time.
“I’m learning that someone with depression can hear the truth 100 times and still in their mind is being deceived into believing lies that aren’t true. Bob was a fully competent, capable, highly awarded officer in the Air Force, and for some reason, he felt he was incompetent all of the sudden. With depression, a person is living in a false reality that is ingrained in their brain and who knows how it starts.
“Ultimately, there’s a mystery we have to walk in for the rest of our lives -- never knowing exactly what happened. That’s depression for you. Is it a chemical issue? Is it a stress issue? Is it physical, malnutrition? There are so many ways or reasons that depression could come about, and it’s so hard to pinpoint what it is.”
When asked what Tom would say to anyone with loved ones struggling with depression, he said:
“My encouragement would be to have a tender heart for whoever is going through it. There are times when you want to get angry at them for not getting out of bed. Everything about them doesn’t seem rational. It’s not a fair fight to use logic. There’s nothing off limits to depression. You have to respect the severity of how far it can go and how deep it can reach into a person’s brain. I would encourage people to deal with love and kindness.”