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Sergeant's unexpected suicide rattles his MP unit

Sep. 25, 2012 - 12:04PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 25, 2012 - 12:04PM  |  
Sgt. Derek Smith's suicide shocked his fellow soldiers in the 45-member 212th Military Police Detachment.
Sgt. Derek Smith's suicide shocked his fellow soldiers in the 45-member 212th Military Police Detachment. ()
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On a Thursday, military policeman Sgt. Derek Smith was in a small conference room at Fort Belvoir, Va., playing the role of a concerned friend in a suicide prevention training session. That Sunday, he was found in his patrol car, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

How Smith could take his own life was a mystery to his commander and others in their relatively tight-knit unit, the post's 45-member 212th Military Police Detachment.

"From my view, he had not a care in the world, and life was going great," said Staff Sgt. Steven Finch, Smith's supervisor. "No sign whatsoever. Zero. I'd spoken to him that Friday and his family had spoken to him that afternoon. Nothing."

Smith, 29, of Jacksonville, Fla., entered the Army in 2007 and deployed to Iraq a year later for 15 months, then left the Army and re-enlisted in 2010.

At least to his co-workers, he showed no signs of the behavioral health problems, financial distress or relationship issues that often precede a suicide.

"In the training, they say that most ideations present themselves, that there are signs, but not always," said Don Dees, a Fort Belvoir spokesman. "Even in the training, they say that someone who commits suicide is just going to commit suicide, and they may not say anything, they may not reach out. And every soldier needs to know that when you come down to that decision, there is someone who cares. There will be a room full of people who wish they had done something for you at that moment."

In the last months of Smith's life, Finch had elevated Smith from dispatcher and armorer to patrolman. As a dispatcher, "he knew his job backward, forward and diagonally," Finch said. And on patrol, Smith loved helping others.

"I've never seen him mad, frustrated, angry, whatever," Finch said.

Smith was almost overly polite, with precise military bearing. He liked to give up his vacation days to work the shifts of the other MPs. On Father's Day, he appeared by surprise at a friend's house and told him he would work for him. "He said, ‘Just hang out with your kids tonight,' and if anything could tell you what Smith was like, that was it," Finch said.

Though he lived alone, Smith wasn't a loner, dating women and visiting friends in Woodbridge, Va. He also planned for the future, exploring emergency medical technician training and setting a meeting with the local police chief to pick his brain about being an administrator.

In the unit's suicide prevention training, days before Smith took his life, he played the role of the concerned friend, trying to coax a troubled buddy to open up.

"He was saying, ‘Hey, you can talk to me,'" Finch said.

It was all the more baffling when Smith took his own life.

"I think a lot of people are talking about this, ‘Where did we go from Thursday to Sunday? How did this happen?' " Finch said. "It's a lot of confusion. I wish I had an answer for what can we do better."

Doubly intimate as soldiers and police, members of the unit were shocked by Smith's death. The announcement was met with a mix of gasps and stone faces. Finch said he was mad at Smith for a time and mad at himself.

Unintentionally echoing Smith's own words in the training scenario, Finch said he wishes he could have told Smith beforehand, "Dude, why don't you just call me?" But, he said, he never asked because he never had a clue Smith was struggling.

"Could I have asked him, ‘Are you not feeling well, are you struggling with depression?' But was he?" Finch said.

Smith left no note. However, his family told his local newspaper, The Mirror of Mayport, Fla., that he had met a woman online. It ended, and that haunted him. In the woods where he was found, his phone had been thrown.

Finch said he believes Smith probably made a split-second decision that night, and there's not much anyone could have done, especially because he showed no outward signs of distress. What's more, Smith's Toyota 4Runner was in the shop.

"Who puts their car in the shop and takes their own life?" Finch said.

Capt. Ryan Goltz, the commander of the 212th, said, "I know it makes us sound like the worst leaders in the world to not know what was going on in your soldier's life; [Finch] didn't know and I didn't know. But nobody knew."

Finch said he had the privilege and sad honor to escort Smith's remains home to Jacksonville. He recalled how he saluted as Smith's parents spent a private moment on the tarmac in Florida, touching their son's casket before the honor guard escorted it to the hearse.

If Smith had thought through the devastating impact of his suicide on his family, he never would have ended his life, Finch said.

"He would never have thought to do anything harmful to his mom and dad," he said. "The people on the plane didn't know it was a suicide, just another fallen soldier. Most soldiers we transport are not dying in combat."

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