Ranger Up Talks Suicide: The Domestic Enemy
By Captain Brandon J. Bettis
Staff Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery was a decorated combat Infantryman who died on January 20, 2010 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. He was one of the finest Infantrymen that I have the honor in serving with and his death rocked our company. When his mother, Debra Hays, received the news she was informed that “Thaddeus died of a head wound, and it was under investigation.” Three days later, Debra found information on the internet that listed the incident as “non-combat related.” Finally, after a week of no answers from US Army officials, Debra got the answer that everyone in his Company already knew… SSG Montgomery committed suicide.
As a future Company Commander I have no shame in admitting that in the past, I have suffered from the grips of depression and even suicidal thoughts. My treatment was positive mental behavior, extra physical training, and speaking out through writing or talking with my spouse. The aftermath of suicide and knowing what my wife and children would have to go through is probably the biggest deterrent and motivation for me to live life to the fullest. Those thoughts do not affect my job performance and I know I can still complete any mission given to me or my future Company.
Normally, I would never admit that I have had those thoughts in a public forum. The fear and possible implications to my career would be too great and I would’ve bottled them up. However, I feel that my voice needs to be heard and as a leader, I have a huge responsibility to help my fellow Soldiers. Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs) and Officers need to speak out about their experiences to show that stress, depression, and even suicidal thoughts are natural in our profession and share solutions to the problem. We need to feel comfortable having an honest dialogue about serious topics such as what the Army needs to improve and what it does well when it comes to suicide prevention, and what leaders can do to help their Soldiers. Despite all the training, we also need to understand that not everyone can be saved.
The Army conducts an investigation after any serious incident and a suicide is no different. The events leading up to SSG Montgomery’s death were inspected and, according to the current training and SOPs, everything that could be done to save him was attempted. His Platoon Sergeant, and close friend, noticed a shift in behavior and he attempted to talk to him about his feelings. SSG Montgomery was flagged by behavior health as needing “a break” and he was scheduled to fly out of the combat zone hours prior to his death. Despite what everyone did RIGHT, the unfortunate outcome still took place.
While SSG Montgomery’s story is not unique, it does paint an all too common picture within the ranks of the US Army. A Soldier commits suicide, and the survivors are left with countless questions. Questions that will probably never get answered.
Everyone has stressors in their life and most deal with them in a healthy and natural way. Unfortunately, there is still a dark cloud in the active duty ranks about asking for help or showing weakness. In the combat arms branches, we are taught from day one to “suck it up and drive on,” a stigma that asking for help is considered a weakness. I’m here to say the mentality of asking for help without consequences needs to change to help solve the issues that many Soldiers face.
Recent Medal of Honor recipient, SSG Ty Carter, and other leaders like Major General (Retired) Mark Graham are starting to speak out and let their subordinates know that depression and thoughts of suicide don’t make a Soldier any less valuable to the team. “Only those closest to me can see the scars that come from seeing good men take their last breath,” said SSG Carter. “Know that a Soldier or a Veteran suffering from PTS is one of the most passionate and dedicated men or women you’ll ever meet. Know that they are not damaged.” This trend of real leadership needs to continue and I believe the Army will improve because of it.
Soldiers thinking of suicide or suffering from depression need help to find their “medication.” Whether its prescription medication under the supervision of a doctor, talking to behavioral health, or just falling in love with a hobby—each program will be different for each individual and there are no cookie cutter answers. Bob Delaney, author of “Surviving the Shadows” and advocate for helping with PTS, suggests 21st century therapies like Ride 2 Recovery, specialized PT (like Crossfit or Martial Arts), horse therapy, or “Peer to Peer” conversations. “We are a society that looks for 100% resolution,” said Delaney. “While we would all like that to happen—the reality is we are not going to eliminate suicide. Our hope is to provide methods to help reduce suicide.”
The huge benefit Soldiers have is that all the information they need to get help is readily available, free of charge, because the Army understands it needs to take care of its most valuable asset—the Soldier. Most units have a behavior health specialist assigned to assist Soldiers and each unit requires annual suicide prevention training. When I recently moved to Fort Bliss, Texas, I was pleasantly surprised that the former Commanding General, MG Dana Pittard, was leading the charge to ensure Fort Bliss Soldiers had all the tools and resources to combat suicide.
During a very thorough in-processing schedule, all new Soldiers were required to attend a two day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) class. This course was much different than any other training I have had. Lead by fellow Soldiers, it was broken down to make it much more user friendly. The training includes practical exercises, examples, and a detailed workbook to lead us through the training. We also conducted mock scenarios that would help prepare us in case we ever had to deal with someone who is suicidal. MG Pittard’s campaign of “No Preventable Soldier Deaths” gained national attention and in 2012, Fort Bliss had the lowest suicide rate in the Army.
I feel that ASIST is far superior to the previous go-to training that the Army provided. In the past, the Army issued ACE Cards in conjunction with suicide training which were quick reference cards instructing Soldiers to “Ask your buddy, Care for your buddy, and Escort your buddy (to help).” Commanders should embrace ASIST and stress the importance of the training the same way they plan and execute marksmanship training.
Unfortunately, not everyone can be saved. Just over a month ago, a Fort Bliss Soldier took his own life, alone in his apartment. While I did not know this fellow Officer, I was tasked as a Summary Court Martial Officer (SCMO) to assist with his case. When I visited his apartment to begin the inventory of his personal effects, the scene of his suicide shook me more than I thought it would. My Commander was smart enough to direct me to behavioral health and when I arrived and started talking to a counselor, I realized this was necessary for my well being. Just talking to someone about what I witnessed at the scene was enough to keep it from taking over my thoughts. In addition, dealing with his case gave me greater resolve that taking my own life is not the way I want to be remembered. I don’t want a suicide to be my lasting impact when people think about my life.
I believe that the momentum that has been created over the last few years will continue to bring about positive changes in how we train to prevent and recover from active duty suicides. Commanders and Soldiers have the tools at their disposal to help their battle buddies deal with personal and mental issues. I encourage all service members to take suicide prevention training seriously and don’t be afraid to talk about personal experiences in public and in private. We have accomplished a lot over the last 12 years of war and no one wants to see those efforts diminished with Soldiers taking their own life.
While I have struggled with my personal demons in the past, the Army continues to struggle in finding solutions for the suicide issue. Unfortunately, there may not be one singular answer, but I hope that my voice can help at least one individual. As a Soldier, I swore to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I look at suicide as a domestic enemy and I need your help to combat this issue.
Captain Brandon Bettis is an Infantry Officer assigned to Fort Bliss, Texas. The views expressed in this article are his and do not represent the United States Army’s official disposition regarding Soldier suicide.