Ranger Up Talks Suicide: How?
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.