Editor’s note: This article discusses suicide and suicidal ideation that some may find disturbing.  If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

Staff Sgt. Austin Spurling was at the right place at the right time one day in 2017, when he saw an airman crying his eyes out by a lake at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. The anonymous airman was 25 years old, going through a divorce with his wife, who had kicked him out of the house, and was soon separating from the Air Force.

“I was at my lowest and had nowhere to go and just lost,” the airman wrote on the popular Facebook page Air Force amn/nco/snco in February. “I was sitting by one of the lakes on base thinking of killing myself … This person saw me crying and came running over and talked to me.”

That person was Spurling, and he saved the airman’s life by helping him feel less alone at a dark time in his life. Spurling “asked me who I was, where I worked and listened to my whole life story for a good while,” the airman wrote. “He stood by me through absolutely everything and nearly every day reminded me I had a life worth living and that this is just a small part of my life and I’d make it through.”

Spurling also offered the airman his couch to sleep on, bought him $300 worth of groceries, helped him find a temporary apartment and even paid the security deposit on it. Even after the airman separated from the Air Force, Spurling continued to check in on him every day with a phone call on his way home from work.

“I just wanted others to see what an outstanding NCO he was,” the airman wrote. “With all the bad talk about bad leadership, he was better than my own.”

The airman is right, his story stands out at a time when the Air Force is struggling not only with a suicide epidemic but also with a crisis of toxic leadership that many airmen say is crushing morale and mental health across the service. NCOs like Spurling seem to be the antidote for both those issues, and the staff sergeant was recognized earlier this month for both his actions back in 2017 and for all his good work since. 

Related: This soldier almost died by suicide. Now he’s telling his story in hopes of saving someone else

At a ceremony held on March 10 at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, where Spurling is currently stationed with the 355th Logistics Readiness Squadron, members of the Desert Lightning Team First Sergeant Council presented Spurling with a challenge coin and the Diamond Sharp Award, which applauded his “service and professionalism upon accomplishing the mission and taking care of the people,” according to a photo of the award shared on Facebook this week.

“The 355 LRS took notice of Staff Sgt. Spurling as a caring and super-sharp NCO prior to the [February Facebook post] you referenced,” Master Sgt. Shane Harvey with the 355th LRS told Task & Purpose. “Staff Sgt. Spurling routinely looks out for his Airmen, so no one in the squadron command team was surprised when they read about his selfless actions. He is constantly looking for opportunities to make the unit better by setting his Airmen up for success through education, community service and sharing his extensive on-the-job knowledge!”

For his part, Spurling was a little overwhelmed with all the attention his good deeds were getting.

“I honestly don’t know what to say. This whole thing blew up to more than I expected. It has my anxiety through the roof,” he said. “I’ve never been the type that’s about recognition or having eyes on me so to speak, so this is all pretty overwhelming.”  

Public attention wasn’t what Spurling had in mind when he first approached that airman nearly four years ago back in South Dakota.

“I just wanted to do the right thing and help a fellow Airman out,” said Spurling, who joined the Air Force in 2010. “When someone, military or not, is at the lowest of lows and you find yourself placed in that individual’s life, I believe it just comes down to being a decent human being and helping any way you can.”

Made up of noncommissioned officers from units across Davis-Monthan, the Desert Lightning Team First Sergeant Council periodically holds a ceremony “to recognize Airmen for doing great things,” Harvey explained. The March 10 ceremony had a great turnout, “which made it easier to get the word out about how awesome Staff Sgt. Spurling is,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Austin Spurling was recognized for taking care of his airmen with an award and a special card-shaped challenge coin on March 10, 2021 at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (Facebook photo)
Staff Sgt. Austin Spurling was recognized for taking care of his airmen with an award and a special card-shaped challenge coin on March 10, 2021 at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (Facebook photo)

Challenge coins, like the one Spurling received, are handed out a lot in the military for achievements both large and small. But this coin is pretty sweet: it’s shaped like an ace of diamonds playing card, which is a reference to the diamond symbol in the center of an Air Force first sergeant’s rank insignia.

“We wanted to get away for the normal round challenge coin; we wanted something that would stand out and that Airmen would want to display proudly,” Harvey said, about the card-shaped coin. The American flag and the Arizona state flag are also featured in the center of the coin “to give it a little razzle-dazzle” and to represent the state the base is in, Harvey explained.

The extra effort put into the challenge coin is a lot like the extra effort Spurling put into helping that anonymous airman four years ago, Harvey said.

“We are really proud of this coin and what it represents, and we don’t present it out lightly. We reserve our coins for outstanding Airmen just like Staff Sgt. Spurling!”

Featured image: Screenshot from Dec. 17, 2015, when then-Senior Airman Austin Spurling sent a holiday greeting to family and friends back home in Lincoln, Nebraska and Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany from an undisclosed location.

Related: We salute the Air Force chief who smoked turkeys and bought Rockstars for his airmen when the commissary ran out