Commentary: Common threads bind attempts at suicide
June 6, 2009
It sounded like someone chopping onions on a cutting board as the specialist stabbed the long black blade around his fingers faster and more reckless with each pass between his fingers. I was an Air Force staff sergeant at the time of this incident, running the track while deployed at Prince Sultan Air Base, Kingdom of Saudia Arabia, when I heard this noise and investigated.
"Hey, if you cut off a finger, I'll have to explain it to the medics," I said.
The airman looked up. "So' What's one less piece coming back' Nobody back home is going to miss me."
"Really, airman, what's going on'"
"Yeah, my fiancAfA left me for some other guy," he confessed.
"Perhaps I better take the knife," I said.
"Sure, I won't be needing it where I'm going," said the airman, handing over the weapon. "In fact, here's the key to my footlocker; take whatever you want."
"Where are you going'"
"Around ... I don't think anyone at work would miss me either," the airman mused. "They would think about me a day but then get back to the mission. The mission never stops."
"You aren't thinking about harming yourself are you'" I asked.
"No ... I don't know ... maybe."
I invited the troubled airman for a walk, and talked with him, guiding him to the counselor's office. He was upset, but I had saved his life. Later, the airman thanked me.
Warning signs of suicide include acting recklessly, speaking in a hopeless manner and giving away possessions. These were all displayed by the young airman.
Before I knew about the "ACE" suicide prevention principles, I had dealt with many people who felt they had had enough - enough of the pain and disillusion of their lives. Fortunately, I got training in suicide prevention and even volunteered at a prevention hotline.
Today, the Army recognizes the importance of training everyone in suicide awareness and has created the ACE program. ACE stands for Ask, Care, and Escort. I "asked" the airman what was wrong, "cared" enough to actually listen and "escorted" him to a service provider.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the emotional crises that usually precede suicide are often recognizable and treatable. Most suicidal individuals give some warning of their intentions.
The most effective way to prevent a friend or loved one from taking his or her life is to recognize the factors that put people at risk for suicide, to take warning signs seriously, and to know how to respond.
The Army is responding to the rise in suicide rates by educating Soldiers and leaders on the warning signs of suicide and emphasizing having the strength to help your battle buddy or to seek help if you need it.
More dramatic incidents also happen that result in saving the life of a service member. It is estimated that 20 percent of all suicides are completed by male veterans.
Working in a multi-service or purple-suit environment prior to coming to Hawaii, I have had to report on many different incidents, some attempted suicides and sadly some successful.
The common factor in the attempts was that people around the servicemember paid attention and stepped up to save a life.
For example, a Marine lost his rank, his identity and his desire to keep living as the result of an Article 15.
"I can't do it anymore," said the Marine to his roommate. "I don't amount to much at work anymore. Goodbye."
That morning, before formation, the Marine picked up his personally owned weapon from its usual place in the apartment and went to work. His concerned roommate called the unit and alerted the personnel about the missing weapon and the potential suicidal intent of the Marine.
"We were concerned about him the whole morning," said the Marine's officer in charge (OIC).
The officer had just finished ACE suicide prevention training, "so the signs were fresh in my mind," he said.
The officer and a chaplain talked to the Marine about his intentions. The search was on for the missing weapon. The Marine said he didn't have anything to live for.
"You can earn your rank back," the chaplain remembers telling him, as members of the unit searched the Marine's car, where the weapon was found.
All the officer had on his mind was, "I'm not going to let him hurt himself, nor me, nor anyone else."
The heroes of this incident were the leaders who took the time to care for the Marine and see him safely through his darkest of times, said the chaplain. If it weren't for the unit taking that extra step, we might have had one less Marine.
"Loss is often the trigger for suicide," the chaplain said.
The loss of a loved one, the loss of identity, and other losses can seem pretty significant and overwhelming. Soldiers, too, and their battle buddies must look out for each other because they know each other best.
The actions of leaders and a support network show that the ACE suicide prevention program works.
Heroic efforts are often not reported in order to protect those involved, but I can tell you that the pattern is the same. The people are different, but the feeling of loss is the same.
"The ACE program provokes thought and reminds you that it only takes a second to care for your buddy, because it only takes a second for a him or her to make a rash decision," said the officer.
Call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
For more information, visit <a href="http://www.realwarriors.net"> www.realwarriors.net</a>.
<i>(Editor's Note: The incidents in this article are real. The names have been changed to protect the individuals involved.)</i>