Fort Lee Quartermaster Soldiers share suicide stories
October 3, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (Oct. 4, 2012) -- With the telling of five tragic stories, military and civilian workers of the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade witnessed one of the more poignant moments of the Sept. 27 Suicide Prevention Stand Down Day here.
A brigade-sponsored training event in the Petroleum and Water Department auditorium featured three Soldiers -- including Lt. Col. Ronald Childress Jr., commander of the 262nd QM Battalion -- who shared personal accounts of the untimely, self-inflicted deaths of classmates, battle buddies and close friends. It was an emotional event that clearly met the Army's goal of conducting innovative training that drives home the points of awareness and intervention to eliminate incidents of suicide in the ranks.
"I remember that day when we were just hanging out, and I knew something was wrong," said Childress of his high-school friend Becky. "I asked her if she was all right and she just responded, 'Yeah,' so I let it go. Of course, I know now that I should have asked more questions or tried to find someone else she could talk to, but I didn't. A few hours later, I found out she was dead."
Three months later, the brother of a girl that Childress once dated asked if he wanted to come over and shoot baskets, which was somewhat out of the ordinary considering their casual relationship that he didn't consider to be close to "friend status."
"This guy had never called me before, so I'm thinking, 'what's the problem … what's wrong with this picture?' That's as far as it went," Childress said. "Later that Sunday afternoon, the family went to church and the brother didn't go. The parents found him dead in the garage when they returned home."
Both examples, Childress continued, underscore the point that cries for help from individuals with suicidal thoughts may be subtle or may not make any sense at first glance; however, it's important to listen carefully and act if one suspects even the slightest hint of emotional troubles.
"The Army uses the Ask-Care-Escort model to make it easy to remember," he said. "In those two instances in high school, how much of a difference would I have made if I had gone beyond the point of simply asking, 'Are you OK?' I don't know, but it's worth consideration as we discuss this important issue (of suicide awareness and prevention)."
Childress then introduced Sgt. 1st Class Aretha Riley, 262nd QM Bn. S-4, who shared the story of a "wonderful young man" -- Spc. Nicholas Steele -- she first met at Fort Riley, Kan., in May 2009. He was barely 18 years of age, and Riley quickly became a mentor/mother figure for the young Soldier.
Their unit deployed to Iraq in September 2009, and Steele was selected for one of the personal security detail positions that many Soldiers in country desperately wanted. In February 2010, he suffered a traumatic brain injury when the convoy he was riding in got hit by an improvised explosive device and rocket-propelled grenade, Riley said. "They took him off the road while they were treating him for a concussion, but he never lost one bit of his desire to be out there with his battle buddies," she added.
The unit returned to Fort Riley in September 2010 and "everything seemed fine," according to Riley. Steele was considering reenlistment and appeared to be on track for a very successful military career. "Then he started suffering nightmares around January 2011," she said.
"When we discussed seeking help from the mental health experts, he didn't want to do it because he was afraid of being picked on by his co-workers. It took a lot of discussion, but he finally agreed to go and they were able to help him with medication to get rid of the nightmares so he could sleep."
After her transfer to Fort Lee, Riley stayed in touch with Steele through Facebook. Those message posts, however, quickly devolved from "life is an amazing thing" to "I can't live life like this anymore, I've got to go." She made a call to check on her former Soldier and later learned that he tested positive for drugs during a urinalysis.
"He was self-medicating with drugs and alcohol," Riley said. "There was no way I could 100 percent blame him for it because he was only 20 years old and couldn't legally buy that stuff on his own. It was his battle buddies who were giving him the alcohol thinking they were helping him while they were actually failing him."
Steele was chaptered out of the Army in August 2011 and, according to a Facebook post in January, he was participating in a residential rehabilitation program. On Feb. 7, his birthday, Steele's parents made note of his progress as he prepared for discharge from hospital. In March, the former Soldier disappeared, leaving friends and family behind. On July 13, Steele ended his life.
"The whole story hurts my heart because he was like a son to me," said Riley, who concluded with this final thought, "Listen to your Soldiers; not just what they're saying but how they're acting and what seems out of place. If they're reaching out for help, be there always and never give up until you know for certain that they're OK. That's what real leaders do."
Sgt. 1st Class Shawntez Edmonson, the final speaker of the trainings session, recalled the loss of a subordinate Soldier to suicide during a 2006 deployment to Iraq. Every aspect of the assignment was difficult, he noted. The harsh environment and mounting IED casualties, to include their sergeant major, taxed even the most seasoned combat veterans and younger troops walked a tightrope between composure and panic.
"(Spc. Vincent Kamka) was the sort of Soldier who never complained," Edmonson recalled. "He didn't have discipline issues, he was usually the first one to volunteer and he pushed himself harder every day. He was just the sort of person you took a lot of interest in because he clearly wanted to learn and improve himself as an individual."
Edmonson learned that Kamka was the small, quiet kid in high school who often felt isolated and ridiculed. The Army, in his opinion, was the opportunity to feel like a member of a team. Sure, there were occasional incidents in which fellow troops doled out jabs and jeers, but he seemed to be adept at letting it roll of his back. That combined with his eager attitude made him a star performer throughout the 15-month deployment.
"In the last week before we were scheduled to go home, we were in charge of a checkpoint and it was our final mission," Edmonson said. "On this particular day, everybody was out there on time, pumped up and motivated. Kamka was in the first truck and left to use the latrine before he started his shift in the gunner's position."
Noticing that the Soldier had not returned, Edmonson sent others out to look for him. Then a radio call from a quick reaction force notified the sergeant that one of his Soldiers appeared to have been killed by a sniper. He reported to the scene and confirmed the identification. A subsequent investigation determined that suicide was the cause of Kamka's death.
"I can't even begin to describe the emotions you feel as the NCO who was responsible for the training and well-being of that Soldier," Edmonson said. "It's definitely emotional because at the end of the day you're left with the fact that this was not supposed to happen. This was my Soldier … did I do everything I could to prevent this from happening? What do I tell my unit? How would I explain this to the family? Eventually, you patch it all up and carry on with the mission, but the feeling of loss doesn't go away."
Edmonson also reflected on the suicide of Sgt. Deatrick Beverly, a Soldier he met shortly after his arrival at Fort Lee. With an outward persona that screamed successful Soldier -- physically fit, motivated and innovative -- Beverly was a bit of a jokester and easy to like.
"The last time I saw him, we were in the motor pool doing an inventory and wrapping everything up for the day," Edmonson said. "On the way out, he was joking around and everything seemed OK. (That same evening) he took his life."
Reiterating the point that warning signs aren't always evident, and may be tricky to identify among Soldiers who have learned to keep their personal lives separate from their military duties, Edmonson said suicide awareness training is the best option.
"If we raise that level of awareness and show that we truly care as an Army team, that's going to make a huge difference," he concluded. "Let's send a loud and clear message also to the entire community that they can talk to any one of us and get help. It's the reason we're here today … let's save a life."