Breaking the silence: Soldier conquers suicidal thoughts
January 7, 2010
- Capt. Emily Stehr speaks out about how she got past her suicidal thoughts after deployment.
HEIDELBERG, Germany -- Her name may not be recognized immediately, but for many in the military communities throughout Europe, her story is one they may never forget.
Last summer Capt. Emily Stehr appeared on American Forces Network Europe and revealed publicly that she was waging a war.
A war going on right inside of her, one that even her husband and those around her struggled to understand.
After a combat deployment to Iraq, Stehr, a physical therapist who was stationed with the 2nd Cavalry Stryker Regiment in Vilseck, tried to return to life as she knew it, but she soon noticed things were different - she was different.
"I thought it's just a phase. I'll snap back out of it," Stehr said.
"But I keep descending into more thoughts of killing and hurting myself, and I'm just getting worse and worse. Five months later it finally dawns on me through a different series of events, 'you know what, I need help,'" she said. "I'm not gonna get better on my own. There's something wrong with me, what do I do now'"
Stehr checked herself into Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, she said, to help her deal with the suicidal thoughts invading her mind.
"Why did I want to kill myself'" Stehr said. "I was around death too much downrange, and, you know, I gave up. My situation is mild compared to what other people have experienced in combat. We've all heard stories of hell on Earth, and thankfully I've never had to see hell on Earth directly, I've just seen the repercussions of it."
But instead of giving up, Stehr took a different approach. In fact, what she did next was almost unheard of. She contacted AFN Europe reporter Michelle Michael and told her she wanted to share her story in the hopes of reaching out to others like her who were suffering in silence. The Army captain was willing to go on camera and speak candidly about her personal struggles with suicide.
"It was very straight forward," Michael said. "She sent us one or two lines that said 'I'm a suicide survivor. I was suicidal after Iraq, and I want to tell my story.' What reporter in their right mind doesn't respond to that'"
"The first time I talked to Emily about her story, she was 100 percent willing to tell it to me," Michael added. "She wanted to get the word out in hopes of saving a life - In hopes of keeping somebody out of the position she was in when she felt like she did."
Even though Stehr was more than willing to tell her story, both women faced some obstacles in getting the piece ready for broadcast.
"It was supposed to be one of those things you weren't supposed to talk about, and I was actually told not to talk about it by one of my bosses at the time," Stehr said.
Stehr was willing to do the story, but she told Michael she wanted command support first. She wanted "to do it the right way."
Another factor Michael was concerned about was the amount of attention the story could generate for the captain.
"If somebody was suicidal already, the last thing I want to do is bring more attention onto her that is going to harm her in some way eventually," she said. "So I was really careful about how I proceeded in that way. She told me already if you were suicidal, you felt like you were alone, you were an outsider, and I didn't want to do something that would make her feel more like an outsider."
After consulting with one other, Stehr's chain of command and Michael's military bosses gave the story the go ahead.
Stehr said she went through with the story for various reasons.
"I think ultimately for justification of my experience," she said. "If what I went through can help somebody else, it kind of justifies what I went through. I think another reason I did was because nobody else did."
Suicide is often seen as a topic Soldiers aren't supposed to discuss, Stehr said.
"It's just this big stigma ... don't talk about it, and I guess I just got pissed and I was like, 'you know what, I'm gonna talk about it,'" the survivor said.
Stehr's story aired on the AFN Europe Report in August. The daily newscast is seen throughout military communities in Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan and the United States, and the reaction was immediate.
After the broadcast, Stehr said she received more e-mails then she could keep up with. That was in addition to the many people, some of whom were her patients, that personally thanked her for speaking out. She also dealt with reaction from those she worked and served alongside every day.
"A lot of people in my unit, they were really surprised that I had been doing that badly because I usually come off as an upbeat person," Stehr said, "people were like, 'I never knew.'"
Most people didn't see her as the stereotypical suicidal person, Stehr said.
Both her Army family and her real family were supportive of her decision to speak out, she said.
"Nobody's ever come up to me and said 'I think you should shut up' - 'I don't think you should talk about this' - 'I think you're being stupid.' I mean, I have run into the stigma, but nobody's been just up in my face being rude," she added.
For Michael the reaction was slightly different.
"As the reporter, you don't know if your stories ever make a difference," she said. "I think it served its purpose, and nobody came forward, and said this is a story that you shouldn't have told, so I think we did the right thing by doing it."
Michael said she had absolutely no regrets about tackling such a sensitive topic using a public forum. In fact, she produced a follow-up story on Stehr a few months after the first interview aired.
"Judging by what I saw the first time and then what I saw, I think it had been four or five months later, she's grown so much as a person in that time," Michael said. "You can see the improvements, and I think it's proof that there is help out there for Soldiers."
As more people like Stehr come forward to tell their stories, Michael said she thinks there will be less and less stigma each time.
"I think she's one of those people who took a negative experience and is moving forward and helping others who felt like she did, and she still loves the Army," Michael said.
Stehr is now stationed in Fort Drum, N.Y., and works as the assistant chief of physical therapy at the Fort Drum Medical and Dental Activity.
She is still in treatment and continues to lend her voice to suicide prevention efforts.
Most recently she spoke to members of the Department of Defense Task Force on the prevention of suicide by members of the Armed Forces.
"I think we're going in the right direction. I think the training needs to be more testimonial based. People saying, 'this is what I dealt with, this is how I survived,'" she told the task force. "More people need to step forward, and I think they are slowly, and the caveat with that is that you can't make people who are dealing with this stuff step forward."
She said it's important that people who are having problems feel safe enough to seek help.
"I don't think we've hit that, I think we're just starting to go in that direction but, I think we have a long way to go," she said.
As a survivor herself, Stehr encourages those with suicidal thoughts to talk to someone and get assistance.
"It will get better," Stehr said. "You can deal with the pain and go on, it doesn't have to be terminal."