By Amanda Kim StairrettSeptember 27, 2013
Pfc. Patrick Hernandez saw the signs. Another Soldier in his section wasn't himself. He was distant, down in the dumps, "seemed like he was having a real hard time."
When the Soldier didn't show up for a pre-field training gear drop off one Sunday in early February and didn't answer phone calls, Hernandez began putting the pieces together. He remembered the Soldier talking about a gun he recently bought, so he and others could go shooting at a range. He lived in the barracks and planned to store it at a friend's off-post house. Hernandez called and found out the weapon never showed up.
Hernandez, field artillery automated tactical data systems specialist, Battery A, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, knew something was wrong and alerted his chain of command. An hour later, he learned the Soldier had a detailed plan to kill himself.
Shortly after the Soldier returned to the battery following inpatient mental health treatment, he made another attempt on his life.
He showed up at Hernandez's barracks room. He smelled of vomit, and he looked sick, Hernandez recalled. The Soldier asked if he could "sleep it off" in Hernandez's room, since he locked himself out of his own. He admitted he took a bunch of pills trying to overdose.
"I didn't want to panic because I didn't want to make any wrong decisions," Hernandez said recently, "so I did the best thing I knew to do."
He, again, called his chain of command.
Hernandez, a 22-year-old Army kid, who considers Fort Bragg, N.C., home, was recognized for his life-saving intervention in May at Fort Riley by Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff.
"Through his actions, Pfc. Hernandez lived up to the Warrior Ethos by never leaving a fallen comrade," an announcer said during the recognition ceremony.
Hernandez said training he received while assigned to the battalion, especially the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, helped him have a better understanding of what to recognize and how to help.
The Army implemented the ASIST program in late 2009 to combat the rising number of Soldier suicides. "Gatekeepers" are selected to attend workshops, so they can train their fellow Soldiers how to identify others who may be at risk for suicidal behavior and ensure they are pointed in the right direction for care, said David Easterling, Fort Riley's suicide prevention program manager.
Gatekeepers are not rank specific. They can be anyone, from private to colonel. They must be quality Soldiers who are mature and approachable in nature, Easterling said. They don't required professional specialized backgrounds, he added, and are not to be considered trained counselors. They are a front-line measure, he said.
"The end product of the ASIST course is Soldiers saving Soldiers," Easterling said.
Hernandez said the one portion of his ASIST class that stood out to him in particular as he talked with his fellow Soldier in his barracks room that day - a role-playing scenario, where he had to ask the right questions to get someone to open up.
Hernandez's company command team, Capt. William Ivans and 1st Sgt. Artie Herald, agreed the ASIST program was helpful. It teaches Soldiers not to beat around the bush when talking with those they suspect need help, Ivans said. He also said leaders rely on a variety of resources when the need arises: the brigade's embedded behavioral health team, hospitals, a local treatment facility and chaplains.
"We're not experts in this," Ivans said. "We're experts in shooting field artillery."
Herald said Hernandez's actions definitely made him proud.
"It was a great thing to see," he added.
The battalion does a good job of instilling a team mentality, Ivans said, but Hernandez's actions assured him he had a good team.
"You spend enough time together, you start caring about each other," he said. "A unit works better when all the members are healthy, so it only does good to point out those issues and bring them to the front, so you can fix them."
Hernandez's first intervention in February was the right decision, Herald said. When the Soldier made an attempt several months later, he realized the one person he could confide in was Hernandez.
"He's like, 'Oh, I'm going to go back to Hernandez because he made the right decision the last time,'" Herald said. "To me, that proves he made the right choice on that."
It was a tough decision, Ivans said, and he made it.
The Soldier continues to receive mental health treatment. He and Hernandez talk daily.
"I'm not really sure how I feel because I'm positive that if I hadn't done that, he would have done harm, and it's just kind of overwhelming for me to still grasp," Hernandez said.