Today, I got an announcement from Fort Hood public affairs about the death of a Soldier. Usually, these announcements are necessitated after a Soldier is killed in a traffic fatality or serious illness. Unfortunately, this one was an announcement that we had lost an NCO to suicide. Officially, the incident is under investigation.
Suicide is the uglier product of going to combat. SGT Jose Joaquin Suarez had just returned from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan last month with his fellow MPs (Suarez was not an MP) of the 720th Military Police Company, 89th Military Police Brigade. They are scheduled to go through the resiliency program I work with next month. He just couldn’t hold on that long. These are the invisible casualties of an Army at war.
Christmas time is a difficult time for many troops that have served in combat. It’s a confusing and anxiety-inducing time in which we are expected to be be sociable and amiable. However, we often find it difficult to let go of the experiences and pretend that everything is okay the way our civilian counterparts and family members can. For many of us, there still burns within us the demons that have declared war on our minds. It’s even harder when the holidays come so soon after returning home.
When troops return from a deployment, there is a process to helping them integrate back into the norms of society. There is a lot of training, briefings from various agencies, and paperwork that must be done. There is a major focus on resiliency and coping skills that we can hopefully rely upon. I would imagine that SGT Suarez was looking forward to the holidays much like the rest of the unit. These briefings became nothing more than a hurdle to some much-needed time off.
Listen, I understand the desire to hit the ground running after a deployment. No one is immune from it. But, we NCOs really need to work hard to set aside our own overwhelming desires to get on with our lives and care for those around us, even other NCOs.
No one knows what happened to SGT Suarez or why he decided his life wasn’t worth continuing. I’m sure he leaves behind many questions in the minds of those with whom he worked. Much like the casualties suffered on the battlefield that result in stirring tribute and somber ceremony, suicide is a casualty for which there is seldom real closure.
I can’t emphasize enough to whomever will listen that the suicide solution is no solution at all. There is ALWAYS somewhere we can go or someone to whom we can speak. Not only should we be willing to pick up the phone when we’d rather pick up a gun or a bottle of pills, we should be willing to answer it as well. That one phone call may be the one that saves a life. It doesn’t matter who you call, just call someone you can trust. If you don’t feel like you trust anyone, call someone anyway; the first person that pops into your head.
When you decide to make that phone call, don’t make it an “all-or-nothing” endeavor. In other words, don’t treat this phone call as the one thing that will save your life. I learned the hard way that balancing a life or death decision on whether or not a phone is picked up is 1) too much pressure to put on the other person and 2) gambling needlessly with a worthy life. I went one step further and didn’t even pick up the phone. My survival hinged on whether someone was reading their email after 10pm at night. It was a foolish experiment I didn’t recognize at the time.
If you find yourself at the end of your rope and contemplating making a fatal decision, try this instead:
Go to the next room or house and bang on the door. If they don’t answer, keep going until you get someone. Tell them you need help NOW. Let them help you, even if they don’t know you. Be honest and sincere and tell them exactly what you plan to do. Tell them to take you to the hospital or your leader’s house.
Pick up the phone and call Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. They are always there. I wish there was an easier number to remember, like 1-800-YOU-TALK or something like that. But, 273-TALK isn’t that hard to remember either. Even if you’re the happiest person in the world and will most likely never need to use that number, memorize that number in case you ever need it. You don’t have to have any answers and don’t need to know what to say. Just be there for that person and dial the number for them. You can also visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Both places are available 24/7.
Fort Hood is a big base, but these suicides affect everyone – as they should. We really can’t be lethargic in dealing with this issue or pretending it doesn’t affect us. NCOs have GOT to check up on their troops often. We MUST visit their homes, on and off base. We CANNOT afford to just go about our lives pretending that our duties and responsibilities end at Retreat. Engagement. Attentiveness. Caring. Follow through. These are the components of a successful mission to reduce or end suicides in the force. It takes more than Big Army programs, fancy handouts, and boring briefings. It takes YOU.
Army leaders can access current health promotion guidance in newly revised Army Regulation 600-63 (Health Promotion) at: http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/r600_63.pdf and Army Pamphlet 600-24 (Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention) at http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/p600_24.pdf.
The Army’s comprehensive list of Suicide Prevention Program information is located at http://www.preventsuicide.army.mil.
Suicide prevention training resources for Army families can be accessed at http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/training_sub.asp?sub_cat=20 (requires Army Knowledge Online access to download materials).
Information about Military OneSource is located at http://www.militaryonesource.com or by dialing the toll-free number 1-800-342-9647 for those residing in the continental United States. Overseas personnel should refer to the Military OneSource website for dialing instructions for their specific location.
Information about the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program is located at http://www.army.mil/csf/ .
The Defense Center for Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) Outreach Center can be contacted at 1-866-966-1020, via electronic mail at Resources@DCoEOutreach.org and at http://www.dcoe.health.mil.