The troops who pitched their ideas to senior leaders and suicide prevention experts were finalists in the corps’ most recent “Dragon’s Lair” competition, a Shark Tank-style program where soldiers of any rank can submit ideas for consideration. They ranged in rank from private first class to colonel.
Army Lt. Gen. Erik Kurilla, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, “agreed to implement some element from each of the five ideas presented,” said Col. Joe Buccino, the unit’s spokesperson. “These five soldiers — and many others — have ideas to prevent soldier suicide. That is the point of Dragon’s Lair: unlocking those ideas, empowering them, and then implementing across the corps.”
One soldier whose idea caught the eye of her superiors was Cpt. Kristen Bell, an operations officer then-assigned to the 7th Transportation Brigade.
Bell pitched the panel on implementing mandatory behavioral health checkups for troops across the force. The appointments would occur every six months, and she believes that they would help destigmatize the act of seeking mental help.
“Right now we have mandatory checks for dental, mandatory eye exams, and routine hearing checks,” Bell told the panel. “But there is no mandate for a soldier to get her emotional wellbeing checked by a behavioral health expert.”
Bell worked with soldiers assigned to military funeral honors details. She argued to the panel that the duty carries a high emotional stress. One of her soldiers died by suicide after participating in several such details in a short period, according to a press release from the corps.
Her idea was one of two chosen for “additional research for implementation,” said Buccino, the 18th Airborne Corps spokesperson.
Army Times spoke with one of the expert panelists judging the ideas, Dr. Eren Youmans Watkins, who is chief of behavioral and social health outcomes practice at the Army Public Health Center.
“The part [of the Dragon’s Lair format] that’s notable…is that we’re getting the feedback, the voice of the soldier,” Watkins said, equating the concept to types of academic research that encourage community participation.
“It creates buy-in from the soldiers, and it also gives them opportunities that they probably wouldn’t otherwise have,” she added.
Watkins spoke about Bell’s idea, commending her “impactful” presentation.
“[Something] that stuck out to me is, [Bell] said… ‘you’re one talk away or one conversation away from potentially impacting someone’s life,’” Watkins recalled. “As a society, we don’t give people their flowers while they’re here. We wait until people are gone before we tell them how much we value them and what they mean to us in our lives.”
Suicide is an issue that affects countless soldiers, veterans, and their families. If you or a loved one is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.