By Franklin FisherSeptember 25, 2014
Editor's Note: The following article was first published in the Morning Calm edition of May 18, 2012. Because September is National Suicide Prevention Month, the article is being reprinted for the benefit of our newer readers.
CAMP RED CLOUD -- One day about a decade ago at an Army post in the United States, a troubled Soldier arrived for an appointment he'd made with the brigade chaplain.
The chaplain saw that the Soldier was deeply depressed over turmoil in a personal relationship.
They talked about his situation and, the appointment over, the Soldier left.
A few days later the chaplain phoned him and they talked again.
Later, she heard a striking piece of information about an unnamed Soldier, and she quickly figured out it was the same Soldier she'd called.
The information was that that Soldier had grown so despondent he was thinking of killing himself, but the phone call -- and the help and concern it reflected -- had led him to drop his thoughts of suicide.
The chaplain, Lt. Col. Suk Jong Lee, is now garrison chaplain with U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud and Area I in Uijeongbu, Korea. She was a major at the time she'd met with the depressed Soldier seeking help.
Lee's experience with that just-in-time phone call highlights something U.S. military officials say is of key importance in helping avert suicide by Soldiers and other members of any military community: anyone -- you don't have to be a chaplain or mental health professional -- can help prevent suicide if you know the warning signs and the actions to take when you spot those signs.
The warning signs can take numerous forms. They include, among others, instances where a person talks openly of suicide or of killing someone else, starts giving away personal belongings, finalizes personal affairs, or withdraws from friends and social activities.
"Pay attention to any significant changes in your friends, your spouse, those people that you know," said Chaplain (Maj.) Andrew Lawrence, the 2nd Infantry Division's deputy division chaplain.
"Look for the warning signs and don't be afraid to seek out unit leadership, to seek out chaplains, medical providers, for help," he said.
"If a person just walked into my office and was not behaving the way they used to behave," said Sondia Fontenot, Suicide Prevention Program manager with the Area I Army Substance Abuse Program, "and they're saying things about death, sometimes you have to use that inner voice, that intuition…that is saying something to you, when you know that something is just not right."
The three actions to take are: directly but calmly ask the person whether he's thinking of suicide; listen closely and give him a chance to talk about what's bothering him; and rather than leaving him alone, escort him to a health facility, chaplain, to his unit leadership or some other place where trained professionals can take it from there.
The Army sums things up in a word: ACE, for Ask, Care, Escort.
Such alertness and an attitude of caring about the needs of others -- followed by prompt ACE action -- can save a life, Area I officials say.
"Those are the fundamental skills, to ask the question, to care for the person, stay with them, and then to escort them to help," said Lawrence. "And everyone can do that.
"If a person does that, that's the real key," he said. "We don't expect everybody's going to have the skills to intervene and kind of go up to that next step" that professionals are trained to take.
"But we do expect that everybody has the skills to ask, 'Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Have you thought about hurting yourself?'
"It's being direct when you ask that question," said Lawrence. "It's not beating around the bush. We want Soldiers to ask that question. 'Have you thought of killing yourself?' Because sometimes people have beaten around the bush and the person won't answer."
The Army maintains a comprehensive list of Suicide Prevention Program information online at http://www.preventsuicide.army.mil.
In Area I, the effort to head off suicides has taken several forms, said Carrie Hicks, the local Army Substance Abuse Program manager.
Officials compile statistics and chart trends on suicides, suicide attempts, and on certain indicators that someone may be considering or intending suicide, she said.
They schedule periodic suicide prevention training sessions for Soldiers and civilians in Area I, and, among other measures, distribute suicide prevention reading material, including a card with ACE information, bearing the Ace of Hearts symbol.
In addition, the 2nd Infantry Division, the bulk of whose troops are stationed in Area I, conducts "Resilience Training" sessions for Soldiers and military spouses, to teach them coping skills that will equip them to handle stress correctly from the start.
The idea is to forestall suicide and other problems that might otherwise overtake a Soldier or family member.
The training "basically allows people to rebound, in essence, from stressful situations," said Lt. Col. David Wolken, who recently completed an assignment as 2nd Infantry Division surgeon.
"Our focus has never been just to decrease suicides," he said, "but to build a stronger community that doesn't have as many depression symptoms."
The resilience training is seen as a major success, Wolken and other officials said.
In Area I, there were two suicides in 2009 and three in 2010.
But there have been no suicides since, and there's been a 50 percent drop in reports of actions and thoughts that often precede suicide.
So keeping a watchful, ready-to-help attitude is a good thing for all members of the Area I community.
"I think when they see another person caring for them, that's all that it takes, sometimes, to find hope," Lee said.
And if in doubt, ask the big suicide question anyway, said Fontenot.
"Have the courage to ask," she said. "If that's your buddy and you're with that person and you know that person to have gone through some depressive moods or hopelessness or showing signs of different things, giving possessions away, just have the strength to ask.
"If it's a mistake it's a mistake," Fontenot said. "The person is still living. But suppose that person was really considering, and you did nothing. That is something that you will have to live with. I wouldn't want that for anybody.