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Lieutenant uses suicide experience to help younger soldiers

Sep. 25, 2012 - 12:04PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 25, 2012 - 12:04PM  |  
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Two years ago, a National Guard lieutenant made an attempt on his own life as his marriage was falling apart. He got help through the Army and moved on, but when he got back to his unit, the stigma was unbearable.

"The very first conversation I had when I got back, my captain pulled me aside and said, ‘Everybody knows what happened to you. Everybody knows you're a piece of s---. If I were you, I'd watch my back.' "

He was also told he'd never serve overseas again, which only lowered his morale. Follow-up visits to an Army counselor didn't go much better.

"All anyone ever said to me was, ‘Nothing is worth killing yourself over,' " he said. "Never, ‘Talk to me, tell me what's going on,' or ‘Hey, I want to know what you're feeling.' "

The circumstances of his suicide attempt followed him throughout his attempts to start over again.

"The Army psychologist said she couldn't understand why someone would kill themselves over their wife leaving," he said.

Not once, he said, did someone ask him about whether his deployment affected his stress management skills.

"How can we expect them to help soldiers cope? They never asked me about my combat experience," he said. "I've seen some pretty graphic images after Taliban attacks, things that I still have nightmares about."

In June, the Army cleared the red flag on his file and he got a fresh start with a new unit, but the suicide issue wasn't far away. In July, one of his enlisted soldiers came to him asking for help.

The lieutenant sent him through the behavioral health system, then sat down with his family to assess the situation at home. Now he makes sure to check in via text and Facebook regularly, to make sure that his soldier is doing all right.

"I'll make sure I seek him out at drill," he said. "But on top of that, I make sure that the full-timers check on him."

Still, soldiers continue to slip through the cracks. In late August, a soldier in his battalion took his own life.

"One thing we need to talk about as leaders is how we can be effective," he said. "We've talked about reimplementing the buddy system so everybody has someone that they check up on. Right now, we get a PowerPoint once a year on suicide awareness, but that's about it."

Although the behavioral health system offered little relief, he said that he's learned coping skills in a different setting.

"If my current wife left, I've got a network of veterans from my [post-traumatic stress disorder] group now," he said. "I've escaped it in a sense, but as long as I'm in the military, there's always that idea that I can't let them know what happened."

As an officer, he has some ideas about how to change the attitude around depression in the Army.

"It has to be top-down or [a] combination of people like me," he said. "Junior leadership, sergeants telling the guys, ‘If you need help, come to us.' "

But, he said, there should also be consequences if leadership mishandles a soldier's concerns.

"If somebody asks for help and you discriminate, then your career should be over," he said.

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