Suicide prevention a key element in force sustainment - Part II
September 10, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - After the Gulf War, Fort Bragg Suicide Prevention Program manager and former chaplain Larry Holland and his Family were assigned to Korea, where he served as a garrison pastor in Seoul.
Following that assignment, the Hollands spent five years in Germany. During their travels, Holland said his wife became a teacher in the Department of Defense Dependent Schools system.
"I was with 1st Armored Division and we did Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, you name it," he said. "Then, I was selected to go to the chaplain's school at Fort Jackson, S.C. to teach. That was my dream. They select the cream of the crop to teach there and I was supposed to teach the basic course to new chaplains. I was so excited."
What happened next would send Holland's almost perfect world and career into a tailspin.
"I got there and they had a change of plans and decided to put me in resource management, which I had no interest in," Holland explained. "Six months into that job, after I became adjusted, they came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'we're short on captains (chaplains) at the battalion level and they needed me and two other instructors to go to Operation Iraqi Freedom I."
That was during the Christmas holiday season in 2002, Holland said. He was then assigned to Fort Stewart, Ga., with the 3rd Infantry Division and a month later they were in Kuwait preparing to invade Iraq.
Holland was assigned to the division's support element, which set up its operation just outside the Baghdad Airport to support the combat troops during the initial push to take over Iraq.
"I was in a unit that had just returned from a six month deployment to Djibouti, Africa with all new leadership," he said. "I didn't want to be there and never thought I would be there because I thought I was safe from deployment at the chaplain's school."
Holland said it was during this period that his ex-wife had just dealt with the reality of their daughter going to college and found herself alone in an "empty nest."
"It was literally culture shock for her after being in Korea and Germany for nine years and coming back to South Carolina and going from the DoDDS back to the public schools," Holland explained. "Then with me being shipped off to war again, unexpectedly she was, literally, left alone and all of her Family was out in Texas and Oklahoma.
"She was going through all of that here and I was facing some hard times over there. With very little phone or e-mail contact we did not share any of the negative things we were both going through. Then, guess what showed up before the Battle of Baghdad started'" he said. "The only mobile morgue that the Army was able to stand up before the battle." Holland said the morgue was sent to his unit because it was the most strategically located unit.
"I was thrust into that unexpectedly. The chaplain is one of a few people who will be in there and be a part of the mortuary affairs team and process the bodies," Holland said.
"We saw some pretty horrific stuff. They received not only all the American casualties, but also many Iraqi civilians found on the battlefield, to include women and children."
Holland explained that he was familiar with death because he had seen a lot of it in the civilian ministry and in Desert Storm. He said during the days that he worked in the morgue, he would de-brief the team every evening and go to his room and sleep like a baby.
"I got back home on my 50th birthday in July 2003," he said. "I finally got out of (Fort) Stewart and went back to Fort Jackson and tried to get back into my job and routine with my ex-wife.
Long story short, after the typical 30 day honeymoon was over and reality set in, I went through some serious post-traumatic stress disorder."
Holland said he didn't have the nightmares that are normally associated with the condition and he even slept well. But he started having anxiety attacks."
"I mean I could just be sitting comfortably and talking to you and all of a sudden (gasp), my heart would leap up in my throat and I'd get an adrenaline rush just like I was in a near accident or something," he said. "These were unexplained panic attacks at any time of the day or night and growing in frequency and intensity."
He said his primary care provider prescribed Zoloft, which did not help and eventually he started drinking very heavily.
"Self-medicating, literally," Holland said. "Even when I got on the Zoloft, that was my way to unwind and block things out. I went through that for about six months and things kept getting worse and worse."
Holland said in February 2004, he realized that his career, marriage, health and sanity were on the line. "Suicide crossed my mind more than once but only briefly because that was something I could not and would not do to my God, my Family or my friends. I know the tremendous impact a suicide has on survivors for the rest of their lives. But there were most days for a long while that I did just want to die. I did not want to live anymore because I just wanted to stop hurting. I know how even the once most once resilient person can experience such a perfect storm of stressors in their life that they just reach the point of helplessness, hopelessness and despair. But, thank God I had a wake up call.
"It was President's Day weekend, it was a long weekend and I told my supervising chaplain that I needed help. I self-referred," Holland said. "It was hard to do, but in the end, I had a lot of support from commanders, from chaplains, friends and Family. I got treatment and I got past it and moved on."
Holland explained that his struggle cost him his marriage of 32 years, but he was sure he wanted to salvage his career.
(Editor's note: This story is part two of a four-part series, concerning suicide awareness and prevention that will run in the Paraglide consecutively, as we spotlight Suicide Prevention Month in September.)