Suicide Prevention Day?
27 September 2012
Last night I slept on the couch with my sick 3 year old daughter. As I was getting ready for work, my wife woke up with a fever and our 11 month old baby showed signs of a sinus infection. When my wife asked if I could stay home to help out, I said I couldn’t, but I would try to get home early.
I couldn’t stay home because today is Stand Down for Suicide Day across the entire United States Army.
Today is a great opportunity for Soldiers to stand as one and come together to battle a growing epidemic. The importance of this day has been brought up over the past few weeks and I even received a mass email from General Odierno on my AKO.
I don’t want to talk about the reasoning of this day and what it means, because I can’t stress the importance enough. Rather, I want to talk about how the Army goes about training its Soldiers… and why it doesn’t work.
I won’t identify my Brigade because I don’t think that’s fair. Besides, this situation could’ve happened in any unit. As part of Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), our place of duty this morning was the BDE Chapel.
I had hoped that we could take this topic seriously, or at the very least escape the office for an hour or two. The acting HHC Company Commander was in charge of leading the training which included the “Shoulder to Shoulder” video and a PowerPoint presentation that was meant to spark conversation. Unfortunately, he was told THAT MORNING he would be responsible for this task (for the record, he did a great job under the circumstances). He asked me to help because he knew I had dealt with situations of suicide before.
SIDE NOTE: I have a little bit of history on the topic of suicide. However, I’m not unique. When I deployed, a Squad Leader chose to take his own life. It rocked our company and no one knew why he did what he did. A year ago, I welcomed my 2nd daughter into this world and promptly sent pictures to the entire family. A few days later I found out that my sister and her husband were in a hotel room that same night. They were at the end of a long battle with prescription drugs and planned to commit suicide rather than face the embarrassment of telling us. The picture of my daughter, her new niece… helped save my sister’s life.
I have also struggled with suicidal thoughts. Deep down, I think everyone has had those thoughts. For me, my daughters have saved me on more than one occasion. I could never take my life and do that to them or my wife, especially when I have seen the impact that a suicide has on the survivors. I won’t go down a rabbit hole about my issues. I realize it’s a work in progress and I hope other Soldiers can accept that this can happen to anyone.
Back to training… as I looked around the room, I saw Field Grade Officers checking email on their Blackberries or editing Power Point slides, senior enlisted talking business, and NCOs trying to catch a nap. A few people were interested, but the majority acted annoyed.
At this point I got upset. As a leader, I should’ve stopped all of this. But I didn’t. If you have ever been in the situation when you see a mistake, but you fail to correct it, you can understand. It’s easy to correct a PFC, but correcting senior leadership is different (especially when it would mean calling them out in front of a crowd). Even if it’s the right thing to do, the Army has unwritten rules when it comes to situations like this.
When the time came to address the group and share stories, I had a plan of telling the group about the squad leader I knew, or my sister, or even my brushes with suicidal thoughts. I was prepared to pour my heart out in an attempt to possibly make a larger impact then strangers in a video. But not with an audience that wasn’t willing to listen. I think this attitude is one of the biggest problems with suicide in the Army.
What if I was sitting in that same chair but I was a depressed PFC, or NCO, or Officer (rank doesn’t matter). What if I was on the verge of taking my own life and this mandatory training could’ve tipped the scales? What if I was thinking about standing up and admitting “I think about killing myself EVERY day!” If this audience of my peers, superiors, and people I depend on was meant to save me, they would’ve failed miserably.
As training concluded and we headed back to work, my supervisor started talking about what needed to be accomplished that day (since 2 hours had just been wasted). My supervisor loves to talk and as I wrote notes about what I had to complete, all I could think of was my sick family and how long all of this would take. As we concluded our meeting I implied that I need to get back to work so that I could hopefully leave early. This led to some light banter and he eventually joked, “What’s wrong… are you suicidal? Just don’t do it today…”
THIS is what’s wrong and one of the reasons why Soldiers are taking their own lives. “Normal” people who are either insensitive or hide their issues approach serious topics as a joke. But what if that “normal” person is talking with someone standing on the edge? Did he just…push?
I wrote this narrative because I’m frustrated and upset. I’m frustrated with mandatory training, but I’m more frustrated with the fact that we ALL get to a point when mandatory training does not work. When senior leaders try to solve big issues for a big audience, the first solution is always massive, mandatory training. Once that training trickles down to the user level, it usually becomes a “here we go again” attitude. Combine this with toxic leadership, and the result is not positive. However, when the CG gets a slide that says “We are 100% trained!” Then everyone is happy; everyone except the guy that needs help… the guy sitting in the room who won’t reach out in an environment like this.
When will we take it seriously? When our friend kills himself? When our family member takes her life? When we are holding a gun…?