Deputy talks down jumper
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Apr 19, 2013, 14:20
Deputy Rodney Womack was running radar northbound on Interstate 295 around 5 p.m. Wednesday when a woman came to his car and told him a man was standing on the bridge, looking down at the water. When he reached the scene, he knew something was wrong.
“It was definitely a suspicious situation on the bridge,” said Womack, with the Hopewell Sheriff’s Office. Womack said that bridge is certainly not a place to park a car and take in the sights of the river.
The man, who was dressed in military attire, had parked his car about 500 yards from the bridge and walked to the center, toward Chesterfield. As Womack approached, he knew he had a decision to make. He could either talk him down or try to force him down.
Womack, who called for backup, in which two other deputies arrived, decided to use his words.
“I wanted to talk to him and see what was going on,” Womack said. He said he wanted the solider to focus on him and not on jumping off the bridge into the water 100 feet below.
Womack explained that if he had chosen to force the man off the bridge, there was always the possibility he could have tried to take Womack off the bridge with him.
“We could’ve apprehended him and taken him down quickly,” Womack said. “But it was safer for us and safer for him. ... Experience has told me it’s not always the time to put your hands on somebody. Sometimes it does more harm than good.”
The man standing on the bridge was a solider at Fort Lee and was here temporarily for job training. Womack, who had also been in the military, began to try and relate to the man.
“I told him I had been in the military and I understand the stress,” Womack said. “I had been there, done that.”
During the conversation, the man continued to lean up against the railing. Womack’s goal during his conversation with the man was to coax him away from the railing and into the back of his patrol vehicle.
“I knew once that door closed, it won’t open from the inside,” Womack explained, noting that the man would then be safe.
Finally, after about 20 minutes had passed, Womack was able to get the solider off the bridge and into the back of his car. The deputies did not stop traffic during the confrontation with the soldier.
During those 20 minutes, the other deputies on scene had contacted the provost marshal at Fort Lee. The man had been reported as unaccounted for.
It was also gleaned from the conversation with Fort Lee that the soldier on the bridge had been reported as having prior emotional concerns. A deputy with the sheriff’s department also works part-time in the provost marshal’s office. Womack said it was clear the issues the soldier was having were present before that day on the bridge.
“It was a stress-related issue,” Womack said. “He was also having issues with his spouse.”
Though the solider did not jump from the bridge, military suicides have grown in the past year, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2012, there were 177 potential active-duty suicides, up from 165 in 2011, or roughly 15 percent.
In 2012, 349 soldiers, across all branches, committed suicide, up from 301 servicemen in 2011. That translates to an average of 24 suicides per 100,000 soldiers.
Once they got the solider into the car, the deputies transported him to the provost marshal’s office at Fort Lee.
“It wasn’t a drastic situation but it could’ve been, definitely with him considering to jump or not,” Womack said. “Luckily, I was able to direct his attention towards me long enough to get him in the car and get him secured.”
For Womack, who has been with the sheriff’s office for two years and a police officer for 22 years prior to that, it was not his first time with such a situation, but it was his first time with that type of situation on I-295.
“I was certainly glad I did not have to watch him go plummeting off the side of the bridge,” Womack said.