Updated on September 30, 2012
Leaders Killing the Led?
On Thursday, I wrote about my positive training experience during the Suicide Prevention Stand Down Day. During the discussion in my group, there were three Soldiers, including myself, that shared stories of their past suicide attempts or thoughts. One of them was an NCO who was shot in the back by Nidal Hassan, the terrorist Army infiltrator at Ft. Hood.
I remarked how initially I wasn’t happy about sitting in another classroom listening to the same boring people brief the same boring slides. In spite of my personal feeling about the training itself, I went in with a positive and open mind. I came out of it feeling much better that the Army had turned the corner and our leaders had truly waken up about doing something to help our troops who felt helpless. Then I read this:
Back to training… as I looked around the room; I saw Field Grade Officers checking email on their Blackberries or working on slides, senior enlisted talking business, and a few 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 leaders is a little 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 SSG Montgomery, 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.
After calling around and speaking with Soldiers from other units – including my former brigade – this is the unfortunate norm pervasive in all the training throughout the day. Unfortunately, most leaders approached this training as a check-the-block requirement instead of an opportunity to get down to the troop level and make some real headway. Not all units treated the training as an afterthought, as evidenced by my current command.
This is telling and goes along with my personal experiences. I actually reached out to my leaders, at the time senior NCOs and field grade officers. Instead of taking that effort seriously and seeking to figure out my frame of mind, they consciously sought to make it worse. They literally pushed me to the edge of sanity and treated it as an afterthought. I heard similar stories from more junior troops in that brigade. In two years, we had three suicides.
I can’t help but wonder if this was the vision Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, had when he ordered the stand down as a way to empower leadership to prevent further loss of life due to suicide.
Read more: http://www.dvidshub.net/news/95491/div-leader-encourages-soldiers-stand-up-suicide#.UGeXNU3A-vY#ixzz27uT7GgDz. I know that at Ft. Hood, LTG Campbell was working hard to combat these desperate acts, so it isn’t a lack of leadership in our general officers. There have been a few anecdotal stories I want to share that paint a dark and disconcerting story about where the Army is in actually preventing suicide:
Ranger Up’s Rhino Den: “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.”
This Ain’t Hell: “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. I’ll defer to their opinions which are pretty critical. I’m just glad that the Army did something, but disappointed because they didn’t do something effective.”
SOFREP: “Combined with Risk Mitigation worksheets and other risk adverse safety measures, these briefings and online workshops represent the Army’s pathetic attempt to replace real leadership with a bureaucratic Cover Your Ass technique that ensures that Officers don’t lose their jobs even as their units fall apart under the weight of suicides, drug abuse, vehicle accidents, and even losses in combat.”
From My Position…On The Way: Until we severely punish those who do attach a stigma to seeking help, punish these “leaders” who do this to our soldiers, we will not see a change for the better. If you were a Soldier with the beginnings of suicidal ideations, and saw a valued and respected member of the team get treated like damaged goods, an infection to be excised, a weak member to be culled from the herd, would you then turn to those same people for help? I know I wouldn’t.