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The Army reported a record-high 182 suspected active-duty suicides for 2012. Those numbers don't include the 126 suspected and 97 confirmed Reserve and National Guard suicides as of mid-December.
There could have been more if not for a military humor website called http://www.asmdss.com">www.asmdss.com, short for Awesome S--- My Drill Sergeant Said. Its founder is taking his social media-driven intervention process and turning it into Battle in Distress Inc., a nonprofit devoted to helping service members in crisis through a network of volunteers.
It was the middle of the night Oct. 24, when California Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Dan Caddy had a gut feeling that something was wrong. Rather than turn in, he picked up his phone and logged into Facebook to check the inbox of his drill sergeant humor page, which had been gaining popularity.
"There was a message on the page from a soldier to the effect of, ‘I'm certain my friend's planning on killing himself tonight. I can't get a hold of anybody in that area. All I can do is text. Can you help?' " Caddy told Army Times.
The soldier sent screen shots of text messages and his friend's recent Facebook updates, describing both an intent and a plan to kill himself.
Caddy sprung into action, posting a call to his Facebook followers for anyone in the Kingsport, Tenn., area who might be awake and available to track the soldier down.
"I had no idea if or how we could help, but what I did know is that we had an audience of 74,000 [people]," he said. "I'd be damned if we were going to do nothing."
Caddy got into brief contact with the soldier via text message, but eventually he stopped responding. Caddy went back to the Internet, where he found the soldier's unit page and a phone number for his company's executive officer.
"I called, woke him up and said, ‘Sir, I know this is going to be a little strange,' " Caddy explained. " ‘I'm from the Internet and I'm here to help.' "
As Caddy retells it, the XO called the company commander and the two got in contact with the soldier's squad and team leaders to get enough background on the soldier that when they showed up at the door, they were able to coax him out.
When he read the commanding officer's thank-you message the next morning, Caddy said he knew he had stumbled upon something that worked. It took a few more days for the idea to develop, after Caddy had a rough night of his own.
That night, Caddy said, he knew he needed to talk to a battle buddy. After nearly an hour texting through his contact list, looking for someone awake at 1 a.m. Pacific time, he got a response from a guy he had served with who now lives in Wisconsin.
"He said, ‘I can't pick up the phone right now, but I'm going to have my friend call you,' " Caddy recalled. " ‘He's squared away. I trust him with my life.'
"He was a perfect stranger but had the credentials, the stamp of approval from somebody that I trusted," Caddy said. "After a half-an-hour, 45-minute conversation, I just went to sleep."
By the next morning, Caddy resolved to create a crisis response team through ASMDSS.
By Caddy's estimation, former field artilleryman Randy Tucker, 34, of Okeechobee, Fla., is one of his biggest success stories.
Over the holidays, Tucker was living in his car, with no support system and, he told Army Times, ready to do something stupid.
"I used to think that it was cowardly and dishonorable to do something like that, but as upset as I was, I was totally OK with leaving a 15-year-old son behind," Tucker said. "Those guys saved my life."
A friend connected him with ASMDSS, whose contacts in the area got him on the phone and put him up in a hotel for a few nights. He has since moved to Atlanta, where he is working for a defense contractor and living in the home of a friend who is overseas. ASMDSS volunteer Tom Cruz checks in with him nearly every day, Tucker said.
According to Caddy, the site had intervened with 33 suicidal service members and veterans like Tucker as of Jan. 24.
"Thirty-three lives is a great statistic, but it's 33 failures," he said. "It's 33 people that should not have been allowed to get to that point."
He added that the team has had nearly 100 cases of service members who weren't suicidal but were buckling under the pressure of everyday military life.
Battle in Distress Inc. won't be fully functional until midyear, but the ASMDSS team is hard at work.
"We're not going to just hand them a pamphlet with 50 different services," Caddy said. "We're going to connect them with people in the area."
Caddy specifically looks for those with chaplain experience, Master Resilience Training, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training and other applicable skills. But that doesn't mean anything, he said, if those in distress don't trust them.
That's why Caddy and his team maintain a database of contacts with information such as which units they served in, where they've been deployed, specific job duties and combat experience, so he can connect a "battle in distress" to another service member who shares his or her experience.
Caddy said he hasn't felt any push-back from the Army or other military branches, and an official with the office in charge of the Army's suicide prevention campaigns praised his efforts.
"Every single life saved through an intervention is a tremendous victory," Army G-1 spokesman Hank Minitrez said.
Caddy said Battle in Distress can bridge the gap that occurs when a soldier is spiraling but is reluctant to talk to his chain of command.
Caddy has deployed twice with the same Sapper company, doing minefield clearance, ordnance disposal and route clearance in the Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan. He's gearing up to head back to Afghanistan for another yearlong deployment.