Ranger Up Talks Suicide: How?

Updated: September 13, 2013


By RU Guest Contributor Clarence Matthews

Ever since I went on active duty we’ve had mandatory training. You know the quarterly requirements that no one really pays attention to? Early in my career, we really didn’t every touch suicide. Over the years, it’s escalated from awareness to intervention. From “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” to “Are you thinking about committing suicide, you know, killing yourself?”

I think that we are definitely moving in the right direction. The fault is, not every Soldier gets this training and there’s still a big stigma with admitting that you have a problem and don’t know how to fix it. No one talks about suicide the way I believe it should be—right in your face, up front, and honest. No judging, no getting butt hurt or defensive, no coddling.

We all feel differently about it and a lot of us are intimidated by it. You will know two things when you finish this article, at a minimum. First is exactly where I stand; and second, you can call, email, Facebook, whatever you have to get in touch with me any time of the day or night and I will do whatever I can for you. So in the spirit of having a direct line from my brain to my mouth, I’m just gonna put it out there.

Suicide to me is a selfish and weak act, carried out in desperation. You can preach until you’re blue in the face or get mad if you want but no matter what, when it comes down to it, it is an individual act and that action is the responsibility of the person that carried it out.

Now why do I believe that? Simple—I’ve lost some and I’ve saved a few. It makes me so incredibly mad when I hear about a Soldier that has committed suicide, or anyone for that matter. Looking at the ones that are left behind is beyond difficult.

For the unit, even for a kid that really just got there, it destroys that unit. The gravity of losing a life is something that a lot of these kids already have grasped and it sucks. I think it is the single hardest thing to deal with.

Now imagine how much harder it is when it’s someone that was well known, liked, and respected. You know this guy, know his problems, and worked with him tirelessly, losing God knows how much sleep worrying about him and praying for him and he gives up.

It rips your heart out.

What if this guy just said “Fuck it, this shit is hard,” right in the middle of a fire fight or as simple as a long road march and quit? You’d be pissed, right? Team discipline starts with individual discipline.

When I was a PL I had a kid in my mortar platoon that straight up went batshit crazy one night after drinking way too much alcohol. Needless to say he went to jail and we took his wife to the hospital. The whole unit centered on them. We took care of the young lady and their daughter like she was ours. He didn’t remember the night or what he did and was so far beyond sorry and confused that I’ll just leave it at that.

A lot of us went to counseling with the young couple; their counseling with a professional because they wanted us there. When I left that unit, that young couple came to my house as we were about to pull out and make our way to Fort Benning. They hugged me and my wife and said thank you—that they owed their marriage and well being to us. I still get choked up thinking about that.

About a year or so later I got an 800 call on my cell and I knew it was either a telemarketer or something bad had happened and it was a call from Iraq. It was a call from my old platoon sergeant telling me that that same kid had just killed himself in a porta-shitter right before they were going to get in their trucks and start a mission. He had admitted previously that he was having marital problems again, talked to everyone honestly and was seeing the chaplain and going to a mental health professional. The platoon got him squared away; he was noticeably acting normal again for a week or so before they let him go on patrols again.

My usual reaction is immediately to ask how everyone is doing, then I get angry. I try to hide it but I can’t. This time, it really caught me off guard. I was crushed. I told my commander and went home and just sat outside staring at the fence until my wife came home. I still have dreams or wonder what happened to his daughter.

Rewind, so we can end with a good story.

There was a kid in another platoon that came to me one day. He was scared to talk to his chain of command and asked for a few minutes of my time. He gave me the whole situation and I’ll be honest, it was pretty bad.

Then I must have blacked out or my PSG had some psychological mind power over me because in about 30 seconds, we came up with a plan and I told him to get with his COC and have them help him take care of his finances. Then I told him that his platoon needed him and that he wasn’t worthless. I asked him to try looking at the name tape he had on his left breast pocket and be that for a while. That name tape will take care of the one on the right. Just fully commit himself to his unit and he would see a change. I chalked it up as another “Dumbass Joe” woe-is-me moment and really didn’t think much of it again.

He took my advice and I never really saw the kid until about late 2007 or 2008. He was graduating Ranger School. He was about to make SSG, had graduated jumpmaster and was already a squad leader. All he said was, “Thanks, Sir. What you said that day saved my life.” He had to remind me, I had no clue.

Well, that’s how I look at it and why. It makes me angry, it tears me apart and ultimately I say to hell with them, I have others that I need to take care of and they are my priority. Is that the correct way to deal with it? Who knows, that’s just me. Is it abrasive? Probably, but at least it is honest.

It takes a lot of nerve to admit defeat or that you need help. Everyone gets shit on sometimes or finds themselves in a tight spot that just doesn’t seem to be getting any better. But personally, that kid that really was in trouble, reached out; and knowing what I know now, I respect the hell out of that guy. He succeeded in the face of adversity and is a stronger man and a better leader for it.

What I’m saying is that there is nothing wrong with saying “I need a hand.” There’s nothing wrong with truly knowing your Soldiers. Hell it’s your responsibility and if you don’t you suck as a leader. I’m not saying that we’ll do everything for you; you’re gonna have to do the work. And I’m not saying that you should hold your Soldiers’ hands or make s’mores the next time you go to the field either.

Just ask, dude. Be honest and up front, most importantly with yourself. Listen. That goes for a care giver or if you’re suffering. I hung up my cool guy boots a while ago. But I’m the same dude. The same things bother me and/or drive me. What I care about are Soldiers. Outside of my family, they are the most important thing in the world to me.

It doesn’t matter if you got out or if you changed units. You think the folks in your old unit wouldn’t like to hear from you? Or that they don’t care anymore? It doesn’t work that way. At least for me and a lot of people I know.

We all know that the VA isn’t gonna give timely help. We all know that the only folks that are gonna understand us, is us. So maybe that’s a great place to start. I encourage you to visit www.gallantfew.org if you’d like to help or if you need a hand. Look into ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) for your unit or yourself (www.livingworks.net ).

The suicide rate right now for Veterans and Service Members is out of control and we need to do everything that we possibly can. I am prepared to accept the responsibility and I am prepared to deal with the worst. I know I won’t be able to save everyone. But I have to try.

We have to try.

If you find yourself in a spot where you are the caregiver; here’s a few steps to remember:

1. Just ask. Don’t beat around the bush. “Are you talking about suicide, are you talking about killing yourself”.

a. Folks in this spot are usually stuck in the past. The thought behind this is twofold. First, it pretty much makes them say “I want to kill myself” out loud, twice, to another person. The gravity of the situation may bring them to a new level of thinking. Which leads me to the second part, the person is now dealing with this problem. Right now. Not what happened in the past.

2. Confirm that you are both talking about suicide. And from here on out, that’s what this conversation is about.

a. See 1a.

b. It’s a logical step in the process and to me it’s really the most important part and hardest. So shut up and listen to what they have to say. Ask leading questions.

c. DO NOT POINT FINGERS or try to solve their problems. You’re not them. It’s off-putting in pretty much every other situation and this one is a bit more fragile. So why would it be any different.

d. If they aren’t comfortable talking to you, find out who they are. If you’re not comfortable going any further, find someone who they are comfortable with.

3. Safety plan.

a. This one is easy. No drugs, no alcohol, no weapons, the list goes on.

b. After this conversation, who else needs to know? Family? Preacher? Someone else needs to know. Chances are that they are reaching out to you because they feel a bit safer. Force the issue and get them to tell someone that they can physically touch and see often.

4. Contingency plan.

a. Alternate contacts, alternate methods of contact

b. There’s a good chance by this point the person may seem to feel a little more in control or relaxed. So when you leave, or hang up, what then? Build that safety net.

5. Review the plans.

6. Agreement / Contract

a. This is the next biggest part and can sound something like this, “You’re gonna tell your wife what we talked about and I want you to call me after you tell her. If I don’t hear from you by 8pm, I’m calling or coming over to check on you and her. You’re not gonna stop off and buy liquor or get drunk. If you feel like you need to, call me. I’ll follow you home and you’re gonna give me your pills and guns. If you get into an argument with the wife or kids, start stressing at work, or whatever, call me or Bob. If you cannot get in touch with us right away, go to the contingency contacts. If you still cannot get in touch, no action on your part until we talk. Tomorrow we can look at professional help so you at least know who and where you can go. Sound like a plan? Do we have a contract?”

7. Follow up.

a. Check in on them when you say you’re going to.

This is not an exact science and conversations go all over the place so don’t worry about it. Print out this guide and it’ll give you something to reference.

I do hope that you start being honest with yourself as a caregiver or if you are suffering and that this makes you think. If you want to learn more or need some help, please look me up on Facebook, shoot me an email, or call.

I’ll do whatever I can for you.


Clarence Matthews

[email protected]





  1. Andrew

    September 13, 2013 at 1:48 am

    This is great stuff!

    I would like to add that at the end of the day, if someone says that they want to kill themselves and you have no idea what to do, if nothing else, take them right to the hospital. I don’t know about the States, but up here in Canada there is generally at least one psychologist/psychiatrist on duty in each hospital.

    My goal as an individual conducting a suicide intervention (I’ve done this twice in the past year), is to create a contract between myself and the individual such that they will not kill themselves in a certain period of time. I may ask for five minutes, hours, or days, whatever the individual is willing, or can, commit to. Get them the help they need. And, if you must, take the individual to the hospital.

    Reiterating what was said above, if you wonder if an individual is thinking about suicide, ASK. Always, Always, Always ask. The worst that can happen is that they say no, at which point you are content (if they lie, at least you tried) and if they say yes, then you can get them the help they require.

  2. Brian

    September 13, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    I am currently an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) Trainer in the 101st ABN DIV (AASLT). I won’t bore you with details, but we are all over the U.S. Army now. I just finished teaching a two day workshop yesterday. The workshop is focused on intervention, unlike many other programs that focus on prevention or postvention. The focus is the “caregiver” and “the person at risk”.

    The workshop is very interactive and not death by powerpoint until every gunfighter has passed out. The largest hurdle that I constantly see is this… participants know what to ask, they know to be direct and clear, yet they dance around the question. Are you going to commit suicide, are you thinking about killing yourself? It’s not enough to simply ask if a person is going to hurt themselves. Why? For a person at risk, they are already hurting inside, thus having already reached this point.

    If you’re a leader, spend two days in the ASIST class, get your Soldiers to go. Get comfortable with being a caregiver, and asking those tough direct questions. Your Unit Ministry Team will more than likely run the program or know who does. You can also check with your Master Resiliency Trainer as well.

  3. Army [email protected]

    September 13, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    Excellent article and comments. Thanks guys. If there is a way for civilians to help please advise. Many out there are aware of the problem and want to help.

    • K9

      September 16, 2013 at 12:01 am

      I have had seven friends commit suicide. Several years ago I went through my own dark night of the soul suicidal episode. For me I learned that there is a difference between suicidal thoughts vs feelings. The thoughts are just that. Thoughts. You wouldn’t mind being dead, but you don’t want to go to the trouble to do it. The feelings are far worse and made me want to try and make the effort. My biggest fear was that I would screw up and not actually kill myself, and who would take care of my dogs? I feared for them, that they would be separated and end up in a shelter. Their love for me was one of the things that helped me to hang on by a thread.

      Then there is that old adage of an attempt at suicide is a cry for help. So my thought process was why should I have to try, perhaps make a bigger mess of things than to go ahead and skip that part and just “get help”. What if my friends had done that? They might still be here today.

      Through countless phone calls I eventually I found a good counselor. She sent me to a shrink for meds. Because I had been battling the suicide feelings for a while, the first thing I told the guy was that I was feeling suicidal. His response, “no one walks in and says they are suicidal on their first visit”. I was stunned, especially since he knew I was a referral from a psychologist. Then I mentioned I had seven friends kill themselves. I explained I was starting to understand why they did it. He then told me that “it is statistically impossible for one person to have that many suicides.” I would have preferred he smack me than to infer that I was a liar and dishonor my friends like that. I got up and walked out.

      I told my family I was having feelings of suicide. They told me to stop being a drama queen.

      I called several hot lines. They were a joke. One woman I spoke with reinforced my desire to die, God she was awful. Another had a 20 minute time limit to talk.

      Most places I reached out told me to go to the ER. I was finding no one wanted the liability that I might actually do it and it would be on them because they couldn’t stop me. Most I think didn’t believe me. I didn’t want to go to the ER for several reasons, mainly because the hospital here is a teaching institution and the last thing I needed was some young resident that didn’t have a clue. I wanted and needed good, solid, positive help. I was willing to admit myself to what my grandmother calls the nervous hospital, but after talking w/them I realized their program was primarily to deal w/alcoholics and drug addicts. I am neither.

      I went to a suicide symposium, I felt confident I would find help/resources/understanding there. Oddly enough I didn’t feel safe there to discuss my problem with wanting to kill myself. No one there could help w/my loss of seven friends either. They had great sympathy for those that had lost one loved one, but not seven. At times I thought I was going to explode on the inside listening to them.
      I later found out the woman that lead the conference had zero experience w/suicide. The university had been given grant money to educate people on suicide. Her job was to advertise, find guest speakers, and make the power point w/the stats and data, so no wonder at a later date when I called her asking for help she sent me off on a wild goose chase.

      I will be forever grateful to my two good friends that once I got the courage to open up to them, they didn’t judge me or freak out. Both asked what they could do to help, and offered to be there for me. Finally I found someone that I could openly speak freely with. Gradually things improved, it was a hard struggle to be sure. Too many days where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.

      There is so much more, but the point is, it just isn’t easy to “get help”. People need to be able to say that they are feeling suicidal and still be treated w/respect. The rejection is horrible and it makes things so much worse. For many, suicide is a mechanism of the mind and body saying enough, I have had enough and I want relief from the pain. They really don’t want to die.

      People do not understand when you are depressed how hard it is to have the energy to make the phone calls, to even take a shower and get dressed to drive to an appointment. One of the most helpful things was for my friend to come to me, to just sit w/me at home and let me cry, and to have someone acknowledge that yeah, my life sucked, but I could make it to tomorrow.

      Through a variety of circumstances I have encountered veterans that are going through the same thing, different reasons of course, but the pain and struggle is the same. Essentially for a few I became their confidant and their advocate by finding different organizations, people at the VA, and other resources to help them. I do my best to save them from having to navigate “the system” and deal w/the idiots that are the other end of the phone. I welcome them to call me a 1am to talk because they can’t sleep, that is what I needed and I didn’t have anyone. I don’t want after what they have been through to feel and be alone. Even though it is so easy to isolate yourself and shut out the world, you still need someone to be there for you. I wish I could do more and help on a regular basis than from just the random people that come my way. It makes me sad to know so many of our veterans are having to go through what I went through. It is horrible, and scary, because you don’t know when that breaking point will come and you just say the hell w/it all and check out for good.

      The last few years our military men and women have been trained in the mindset that unless you have been in war you can’t possibly understand, or help. That has truth to it, but it isn’t always so. It is about having the right person, or people show up at the right time when you need them. We are all human, we all have grief, anger, sadness, sorrow, mental and physical exhaustion, regrets, pain, and what if’s. All anyone wants is to be heard and feel validated, that they count, that they matter, and that they have something to give.

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