Soldier overcomes suicidal ideations, encourages others to reach out, get help
September 1, 2009
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- Capt. Emily Stehr, a physical therapist with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, is in the business of healing. But five months after returning from Iraq, she was struggling with her own internal wounds of war that had not healed. She decided to kill herself.
What stopped Stehr was not the physical pain she would have endured, but the realization of the emotional pain she would inflict on the children of her close friends when their parents would tell them, "Aunt Emily in not around because she killed herself."
"I was not willing to put that pain on those children," Stehr said. "I'd inflict the pain on my mom, my dad, all my other loved ones, but those kids, I can't do it."
What Stehr did do was check into Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and began the process of healing.
"I like to think of (suicide) like cancer. I did not even know I was sick. I just kept waiting for me to return to normal, and it never happened. Stuff kept escalating until it was either, I'll be dead or I'll get treatment. Looking back I can see the whole process, but when you're going through something like that, you're so blind because you're in 'you shell'," Stehr said.
Part of her healing process was coming out of her shell and finding what she called the 'tumor' or reason for her emotional pain and suicidal thoughts.
"I had to go back and rout out what was causing the maladaptive behavior, the tumor. Ultimately, unless you deal with that, it's always going to plague you. You have to deal with it head-on," Stehr said.
Dealing with the cause of her suicidal ideations meant dealing with the anger, grief and emotional pain Stehr said she felt after physically leaving Iraq.
"For me, it was an accumulative trauma - watching patients die." Stehr said. "I had a patient kill himself. We lost 33 people when we were down there. It is hard to see again and again and again ... In my mind, I never really left Iraq."
Stehr said part of her struggle to return to her 'pre-deployment' self included overcoming the stigma associated with seeking mental health and discussing suicide.
"Nobody really wants to talk about suicide. People don't know what to say." Stehr said. "There's shame ... embarrassment. I really thought that I was weak. I bought into the whole stigma that people who are suicidal or have mental issues are weak," Stehr said.
The Department of the Army has acknowledged the stigma associated with seeking mental health and has taken steps to combat it and suicide in the ranks.
Although the number of suicides in the U.S. Army Europe rose from four in calendar year 2007, to seven in calendar year 2008, the effects of the Army's efforts to reduce and eliminate the stigma with seeking mental health were evident in an informal poll taken at the U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr, Aug. 25.
Fifty-one percent of nearly 60 Soldiers polled said there is no longer a stigma associated with seeking help. Sixty-two percent of Soldiers polled said that individuals who seek mental help are not seen as weak, with one Soldier attributing this to "the change in Army culture."
It is a change, said 2SCR Regimental Commander Col. James Blackburn that starts with the leadership.
"Fundamentally, as leaders, we have to recognize there's a challenge, and in this case the challenge is cultural. We are in the profession of change, changing the culture," he said.
With the cultural change, Blackburn and 2SCR leadership supported Stehr in her decision to talk to others about her suicidal ideations.
"I strongly feel Emily's brave move to share her story with the public is exactly what the Army needs to decrease the stigma associated with seeking help. By stepping forward, she is showing other Solders they are not alone and it is okay to talk about what is troubling them," Blackburn said.
"We've got to make people understand...scars, you've got them; I've got them; we've all got them. Some are visible. Some are not visible. Everybody deserves a chance to be successful. Part of that is tearing down the stigma associated with any illness, any scar, that you incur while in the Army, or even before you came in. You are ours now, and will put you in a position to be successful," said Blackburn.
And Stehr said talking mental illness and suicide is the only way to prevent others from taking their life.
"It has nothing to do with being strong or being weak, you're sick," Stehr said. "The correct philosophy is that you're a human, and sometimes crap happens, and you have pain. But you need to deal with your pain. Get help when you need it. Take care of yourself emotionally, mentally, psychologically. It's going to make you a better Soldier."
Blackburn agreed. "(Soldiers who seek help) are strong. They're strong because they are able to examine themselves and know there's something wrong. Most people generally don't say, 'I have a problem.' And these folks this population of our Soldiers are strong because they have the fortitude to do a self-examination, and they know the result. They don't conceal it, they let it out. That's a strong population, not a weak one," he said.
To stay strong, Stehr said all Soldiers need to offer support and be willing to listen and talk. Stehr further said that it is not as easy as just asking someone if they are going to hurt themselves.
"It is never that easy. There is no easy about any of this. Encourage that person and be there for them. The more we talk about it, the better off we are," Stehr said.
Blackburn encourages Soldiers to reach out and get the help they need. "If you are hurting in some way, if something's on your heart, or something's on your mind, reach out...We want you to reach out."
"If you hold it in, it won't do you any good. It won't do your immediate family any good. It won't do your extended family any good. And it certainly won't do your battle buddy any good. We are here to help you," Blackburn said.
Soldiers in need of help can call the U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr chaplain hotline at CIV 0162-296-0838. To read more stories of Soldiers who speaking out about suicide, visit www.realwarriors.net.