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Soldier finds mental health stigma still alive in Guard

Feb. 15, 2011 - 06:01PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 15, 2011 - 06:01PM  |  
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First Lt. Steve Philpot received the phone call every married soldier dreads on deployment.

"I can't do this anymore. I can't sit by the phone and hope you're alive. When you get home, get your stuff and get out," the 28-year-old National Guardsmen heard his ex-wife tell him on the phone in Afghanistan.

Philpot hoped when he came home for his mid-deployment rest and recuperation leave in January 2010 that she would change her mind once she saw him.

She didn't.

This was a miserable deja vu for Philpot, whose first wife cheated on him while he was away at Officer Training School in 2008. He had yet to turn 27, and the Oklahoma National Guardsman was already twice divorced. This one hurt more, though.

"I couldn't believe I was going through this again. I hit rock bottom and I knew I needed help," Philpot said.

The soldier contacted his unit's rear detachment, which sent a chaplain to his home.

Thus began the long road from soldier needing counseling to Army outcast. Philpot still can't believe that reaching out for help has further complicated his life.

Philpot is frustrated with the Guard. So frustrated, he regrets asking for help.

"Since I've asked the Army for help, I've been treated like garbage, like a third-rate soldier," he said. "I got help at Fort Sill, but coming back to the National Guard it has been nothing but ‘you are a piece of garbage,'" Philpot said.

The Army has gone to great lengths to try to remove the stigma that comes with reporting depression and suicidal thoughts. But Philpot and other soldiers said that while the Army has stood up a suicide prevention task force and instituted programs to deal with depression, more work needs to be done when the soldier leaves a hospital or counselor's office.

The problem seems acute in the National Guard and Reserve, where soldiers aren't always together or near treatment facilities.

The Army suicide rate increased by 24 percent in 2010 because almost twice as many Guard and Reserve soldiers committed suicide, compared with 2009. In 2010, 145 of the 301 reported soldier suicides served in the Guard or Reserve, compared with 2009, when 80 of the 242 confirmed suicides were not on active duty, according to Army statistics.

The Guard depends on its "first-line leaders" — noncommissioned officers and platoon commanders — to help those soldiers in need, said Col. Gregg Bliss, chief of the Army National Guard Solider and Family Support Division.

Identifying the soldiers who need help is tough when guardsmen and reservists often live more than an hour's drive away from the unit's headquarters. Bliss said the Guard needs to use such social networking sites as Facebook to better connect with soldiers.

Brig. Gen. Leslie Pursur, the Army Reserve's deputy chief, recommended the Army issue Apple iPhones to its reservists so leaders could call their soldiers.

Philpot's story is a familiar one. He recalls sitting in his living room as he talked to the chaplain about his wife and her three kids from another marriage. He felt close to her children and had already started the process to adopt all three.

What he said next launched the chaplain into action and proved to Philpot a stigma still exists for soldiers who ask for help when dealing with depression.

"I don't want to be alive," Philpot told the chaplain in frustration.

Too many soldiers have said those same words and acted before anyone in the Army could help.

Philpot's case could be considered a success. The Army reached a soldier in need and got him help before he committed suicide.

Philpot admits he has made mistakes over the past year since he started receiving help, first at Fort Sill, Okla., and then closer to his home in Denton, Okla.

He has shown up late to formations over the past year and said he deserved a stern counseling session.

However, since his unit took him off the Afghanistan deployment after he told the chaplain he wanted to kill himself, Philpot said he has had a target on his back and that leadership has tried to push him out of the Army.

He doesn't understand how his visit with the chaplain and counseling sessions at Fort Sill became known in the unit. Posts appeared on Facebook calling Philpot a coward for not deploying.

He was warned that some soldiers in his unit thought he used his divorce and depression as an excuse for getting out of the deployment.

"They are looking to nail you and push you out of the Guard," Philpot said he was told.

Philpot, assigned to the headquarters troop of the 1/180th Cavalry in the Oklahoma Guard, said he's concerned his treatment serves as a warning for soldiers in his unit worried about reporting suicidal thoughts and the possible retribution that could come from it.

Philpot is not alone.

Sgt. Maj. James Rogers, assigned to the Joint Irregular Warfare Center, met a guardsman who attempted suicide in Iraq during a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He spoke to the soldier about problems he was having in his marriage and his drinking.

Rogers has counseled hundreds of troops in his 32-year career. This wasn't a soldier in his unit, but he followed up on his status.

Rogers said he later found out the soldier overdosed on prescription drugs. He blames the "just-check-the-box" approach to mental health he has seen too often in the Army.

"Leadership was more focused on putting him out than actually helping him," he said.

This is what the National Guard and Reserve want to avoid.

Rogers said he wants to see counseling sessions and prevention programs for soldiers focused more on dealing with their families.

The statistics back up Rogers' theory. More than half of guardsmen and reservists who committed suicide last year had never deployed.

Army officials said there is no silver bullet. However, Army Vice Chief Gen. Peter Chiarelli said relationships and family problems have played a role in many suicides.

The Army announced in January it will survey 235,000 soldiers over the next three years to learn more about the stresses soldiers face and try to understand what causes a soldier to take his own life.

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