Soldiers Stand Together for Suicide Prevention
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Oct 1, 2012, 11:58
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Soldiers fold the flag during a special retreat ceremony to bring awareness to military suicide and efforts to address the problem.
Soldiers have a difficult job, and the demands it places on the men and women who serve the nation can take their toll.
In the Army in 2011, 283 soldiers across the active, guard and reserve components took their own lives. This year, 191 soldiers have killed themselves. In August alone, there were 16 potential suicides among active duty soldiers and nine amongst national guard and reserve members.
On Thursday, Fort Lee participated in a world-wide stand down day, providing special training to soldiers and civilian employees on suicide prevention and outreach.
The topic hit close to home for some officers, NCOs and soldiers at Fort Lee who spoke about their experiences with suicide and about the training they were receiving to try to ebb the flow of service member deaths.
Col. Steve Cherry, Chief of Staff at Combined Arms Support Command, lost his oldest son to suicide two years ago, and wants to make sure as few parents as possible get the phone call he did.
“They just need to recognize that we all have challenges in life and they just need to make sure that they reach out for help, that they don’t go to the extreme of thinking things are so bad that they need to take their own life and that there are people out there to help them and people do care,” Cherry said, talking about the message he hopes the hundreds of young soldiers at Fort Lee take from the day.
Speaking after a special retreat ceremony at the end of the world-wide stand down day, Cherry said that teaching the soldiers how to support and help each other, and breaking the stigma of seeking help were critical elements of the training.
“We’ve learned ask, care, escort, which is ask your battle buddy, care for your battle buddy and escort your battle buddy,” explained PFC Lance Collins, a member of Alpha Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion.
He said the training also focused on the signs and symptoms of suicide.
“We also learned to be proactive with the problem,” said Pvt. Jack Toddy, also with Alpha Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion. “Finding out what they’re doing that’s different from their everyday life and trying to help them out.”
Both Collins and Toddy have personal connections to suicide attempts.
Toddy said a friend of his who was in the infantry struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder from something he experienced during a deployment. He put a gun to his head and almost pulled the trigger, but his family was able to stop him at the last minute.
Toddy said the episode made him more aware of the prevalence of suicide.
“He was pretty confident in himself and he was aware of his surroundings and I never thought that would happen to somebody like him,” he said.
Collins spent his senior homecoming football game rushing to the assistance of a friend who had taken a hand full of pills and called asking him to take her to the hospital.
Although the woman he helped was not in the service, she was struggling with a traumatic situation at the time of the attempt, Collins said. She survived, sought help, and is doing much better now.
“People need to talk about these types of things and they’re not going to do that on any regular day,” Toddy said, talking about the importance of a day devoted specifically to suicide prevention efforts. “The way I see it is just a big day to relieve everyone.”
Collins said that the training was an effective way to teach the entire force about the warning signs and give reality to the concept and the figures for suicide within the Army.
“You talk about it, suicide, suicide, and people kind of push it off I think, but this kind of helps make it a reality,” he said.
They also said that the training took an effective approach to reducing the stigma associated with seeking help by highlighting the courage it takes to come forward.
“It takes courage and you have to be brave to go and talk about...your feelings,” Collins said. “I think that it does take some guts, takes a lot of guts, to go up to somebody, ‘hey, I have issues and I need to deal with them.’”
Toddy said that soldiers have to live up to the high standards outlined by the seven Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage every day. He said to do that, soldiers have to push through problems, which can make it difficult to admit when they meet one they can’t work through on their own.
“Sometimes, when you do that every day, it’s almost hard to show your weaknesses and you have to find the courage to throw that out there,” he said.
“It takes a bigger man to admit their weaknesses than to show that they don’t have any,” Collins added.
Civilian attention to the problem of suicide amongst service members and veterans has been growing in recent months. In July, a “Time Magazine” article on military suicide shocked many people with the revelation that at times, the rate of military suicide has been approximately one per day. Later that month, the House of Representatives voted for an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would add $10 million to increase suicide prevention outreach efforts.
Toddy said that although the Army has always taken suicide seriously, he has seen an increased focus on it during his year and a half with the force. He also said that the Army has taken the problem more seriously than any other organization he has seen.
“They know if we’re having trouble, that everyone is getting weaker then,” he said. “You have to stop it at one point and now, they’re really pushing for it to help everyone out.”
Collins said that mental preparation is part of the Army training, which ties in with suicide prevention.
“I fell like...what we do, they prepare us for not only war and what not, but they also prepare us mentally, because we’re humans too,” he said. “We have to be prepared mentally and physically. It’s not just all about physical stuff. You have to be able to cope and be resilient.”
In August, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to improve access to mental health services for veterans, service members and their families. Amongst other things, the order will allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals and expand the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line to ensure access to mental health care within 24 hours.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Sgt. Aretha Riley was remembering her friend Nicholas Steele, who took his life in July. She said it is important for leaders to know their soldiers and look for signs.
Sgt. First Class Aretha Riley is mourning the loss of Spc. Nicholas Steele, a soldier she worked closely with who took his own life in July after struggling with the effects of a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said that making sure veterans have adequate help is critical, especially after they’ve left the Army and are no longer surrounded by their battle buddies.
“The help that we get as veterans or soldiers sometimes is just not enough,” she said. “I think we need more.”
Riley said that leaders have to know their soldiers and be attentive to signs, such as giving away possessions, changes in sleep patterns, erratic behavior, or attempts to distance oneself.
“I can’t stress enough how leaders nowadays need to know their soldiers and pay attention to the signs,” she said.
“In this case, [Steele] had a lot of Facebook postings that were like, ‘I don’t want to live anymore, I can’t do this anymore.’ You have to check their Facebooks, you have to pay attention to your soldiers, you have to ask them questions. You have to be involved in their personal lives. It’s a full time job.”
She also emphasized the importance of seeking help.
“We have to get rid of the stigma that people who go for help are weak, because that’s not the case,” she said. “People that go for help, they’re strong because they know they need help.”
Collins, who intervened in his civilian friend’s suicide attempt before he joined the Army, said that he thinks the training that he and other soldiers received at Fort Lee and across the Army could have a positive effect on civilians as well.
“I don’t think they’re concentrated on just your battle buddies, but on society as a whole,” he said. “If you’re at home and your buddy from a long time ago is showing signs, then you can be prepared to help them too. Because suicide doesn’t just affect the people that they’re close to. It affects the people that they’re close to and those people are close to. It’s a ripple effect.”
In addition to trainings, the stand down day also involved a run that drew an unprecedented crowd of 10,000 soldiers from across Fort Lee.