By Jessica Maxwell, FORSCOM PAOFebruary 26, 2009
FORT MCPHERSON, Ga. -- In response to a record increase in suicides, the Army's senior leaders recently ordered a stand-down across the force to focus on prevention training.
Designed as a one-day pause in the busy schedule of an Army at war, all Army units or organizations must conduct the stand-down between Feb. 15 and March 15.
This one-day stand down is Phase I of the Army's three-phase suicide prevention training program.
It will allow commanders to take a direct approach to the issue, said Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli during a press conference held Jan. 29. It will also afford them time to teach peer-to-peer recognition of suicide warning signs and to make sure all Soldiers, regardless of component, and all Army Civilian employees are trained.
During Phase I, trainers Army-wide will use the interactive video "Beyond the Front" to illustrate to those being trained that seemingly small decisions they make each day can have a big impact on the lives of their fellow Soldiers, Family members or co-workers, said Chap. (Col.) Brad Fipps, staff chaplain for U.S. Army Forces Command.
At key points during the video, trainers will pause the story and ask the viewers to make a choice. The outcome of the story in the video changes based on the choices the viewers make.
This new, interactive DVD was fielded last fall. It allows Soldiers to practice how they would aid potential suicide victims.
The video story follows the problems of two Soldiers. If the viewer says the wrong thing and gets bad results, the DVD-based training aid will allow the viewer to re-do the scenario until the outcome of the story is more favorable.
Everyone who works for the Army, Soldier or Civilian, regardless of component, will participate in the stand-down training.
At Fort McPherson, the stand-down training began this week for DA Civilian employees.
It was conducted in multiple sessions at the Post Theater to accommodate the work schedules of the workforce. Soldiers will be trained separately by their units.
Last year, there were 128 confirmed suicides reported Army-wide, the highest number since the Army began tracking the statistic. However, it wasn't the annual record that spurred the Army to action. Fipps said. Suicide prevention, especially during wartime, has always been a priority.
"Brig. Gen. Porter [chief of the Directorate of Human Resources FORSCOM] directed his staff to look into the circumstances around which the Soldiers committed suicide," said Fipps. The ongoing study by FORSCOM's G1 staff tracks everything relating to suicide to determine where in the deployment cycle they are more likely to occur.
Once this is identified, said Fipps, commanders can apply focused mitigation strategies at key points to counter the stressors that impact their Soldiers through preventive training and reinforcement activities designed to promote resiliency.
"Soldiers and Families are remarkably resilient," Fipps said. "Even though they are under tremendous stress from all the demands of current operations, including multiple deployments, most of them bounce back with incredible fortitude.
"With supportive emotional backing from their Families and friends, Soldiers are better able to withstand the emotional challenges, such as the feelings of severe hopelessness and helplessness that often lead to suicide," said Fipps.
Phase II, which also uses an interactive video called "Shoulder to Shoulder," will reinforce the Army credo "No Soldier Left Behind" and will tie it to helping Soldiers in need, said Fipps.
Phase III will focus on sustainment of the concepts taught in Phases I and II.
In FORSCOM, just as in the rest of the Army, an annual refresher course will be held for all Soldiers, with a chaplain on hand to offer help (if needed) during the training, said Fipps.
The office of the Army G1, which manages and develops Army personnel programs, is the overall proponent of the suicide prevention program. However, the program also depends on input and support from the Surgeon General's office, mental health professionals from Medical Command, the Army Chief of Chaplains office and commanders at all levels.
Suicide prevention training within FORSCOM includes more than just the three-phased approach now in the spotlight. Among the many other ongoing actions designed to enhance the wellbeing of Soldiers and Families, a specially trained Family life chaplain now goes with Soldiers when they deploy (with another one located with the unit's rear detachment). This is in addition to each unit's regular chaplain.
Fipps said the Family life chaplains are licensed counselors who can provide guidance to Families and Soldiers who face the stresses associated with frequent deployments.
Another tool used by FORSCOM's chaplains when conducting suicide prevention training is called "ACE," which stresses the "battle buddy" system.
ACE, a mnemonic that represents the phrases "Ask your buddy, Care for your buddy and Escort your buddy," encourages Soldiers to continue watching each other's backs for signs of emotional problems, even after they return from a deployment. The chaplains distribute the ACE cards, designed to look like playing cards, to each Soldier to carry in his or her wallet.
"The idea of ACE is to encourage Soldiers to help each other and to protect each other from suicidal thoughts," said Fipps.
Trained at the unit level, ACE teaches Soldiers what to look for - anything ranging from unusual sadness to alcohol or drug use. If a "battle buddy" needs help, a fellow Soldier escorts him or her to the chaplain's office. If further help is needed, the chaplain enlists the help of a mental health professional.
"A Soldier keeps the card in his wallet and is reminded every time he (or she) opens the wallet. The idea is buddy care - it's that battle buddy, Ranger buddy idea of care. If a Soldier watches your back in combat, then when you get back home, the expectation is that Soldier will continue to watch your back," said Fipps.
This emphasis on suicide prevention doesn't stop with individual Soldiers, said Fipps. Leaders also have a role to play which is the role the ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) program. It's designed to train leaders about intervention and how to work with distressed Soldiers and Families.
Army policy requires one ASIST-trained representative in every battalion. In addition, chaplains and their assistants, behavioral health professionals and Army Community Service staff members must also attend ASIST.
A certified ASIST representative can provide an immediate response to those who exhibit suicidal signs.
"We want to let them know we do care, not just (the) chaplains, but Soldier-to-Soldier, everybody," said Fipps.
To learn more about the Army's suicide prevention program, contact your unit chaplain or visit the Army G1's Suicide Prevention Web site at www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/default.asp.