Choosing to Live

By U.S. Army Major Stephen C. Von JettSeptember 9, 2019

Choose to Live
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FORT LEONARD WOOD, MISSOURI -- As the Army focuses on strengthening the readiness and resilience of Soldiers during the month-long suicide prevention observance this September, one senior leader from Fort Leonard Wood is sharing his story of battling suicidal thoughts and is encouraging others to do the same.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jason VanKleeck, battalion command sergeant major for the 701st Military Police Battalion, comes from a strong military background. Following in the footsteps of both his father and brother, VanKleeck joined the Army in 1996. After multiple deployments and serving as an Army recruiter VanKleeck became a drill sergeant. It was during his time at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, that VanKleeck began to experience struggles with his mental health.

"I got to a real low point," VanKleeck recalled. "That depression was so deep and terrible I can't even explain it."

He related how he had been working position after position, always focusing on the mission and the job at hand. It wasn't until a cycle break and some downtime that negative feelings began to creep up on the usually upbeat VanKleeck. Despite this, VanKleeck didn't feel comfortable sharing his struggle with anyone.

"At work, I'd be the happiest guy under the sun, but I was miserable," VanKleeck said. "I was having these dangerous thoughts over and over, but it was '06, and you're not going to tell anybody about that."

VanKleeck talked about how as time wore on he started to spiral. "I'd stare at the wall of my apartment and think that I would rather be dead." Fortunately, VanKleeck finally decided to reach out to a support network of his own and he was able to work through the destructive feelings. He admits that his journey with mental health isn't over.

"Mine could be a PTSD problem," VanKleeck said. "That's something I'll have to unpack eventually."

As he progressed in the Army, VanKleeck began sharing his experiences with suicidal thoughts. First with his subordinates and then with his peers and superiors. He acknowledges that the Army has come a long way with acceptance of mental health challenges since 2006 when he was facing his darkest days. Now he implores leaders to share their challenges with suicide.

"We've had shortcomings in how we tell our story to the younger generation of Soldiers. They need to understand, it's not just a private problem or a sergeant problem," he emphasizes. "The people standing in formation in front of them have had issues themselves."

With the support of the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, Fort Leonard Wood, VanKleeck is developing the 'Choose to Live' campaign. The campaign has a prevention focus but is based on a few key ideas. The first key idea is that leaders need to change the dialog. This means that it is incumbent on Army leaders to share their struggles with suicidal ideation and mental health with their subordinates. Changing the dialog about suicide moves the conversation from those that made the unfortunate decision to end their lives to the Soldiers, like VanKleeck, that ultimately chose to continue living.

The next key idea of the campaign is that you are not alone. VanKleeck describes it as, "you are not the only one that sat in your room and thought, 'what the hell is wrong with me,' you aren't the only one that wanted to die." More than that, he continued, "you aren't alone because there are battle buddies who want to help day or night."

Lastly, the 'Choose to Live' campaign requires that leaders embrace their struggles and use them to become better role models. VanKleeck laments that many leaders talk about suicide being preventable but act as if they have never been in that situation or dismiss warning signs outright.

If you're a survivor of suicidal thoughts or ideations and feel ready to share your experience you don't need to wait for permission VanKleeck says. Just tell your Soldiers. Communicate why you chose to live and help change the dialog about suicide prevention in the Army. Letting your fellow Soldiers know that they are not alone is the best way to be part of the 'Choose to Live' campaign.

Author's note: As a youth, I attempted suicide twice and battled ideations for years. It wasn't until hearing about CSM VanKleeck's campaign that I ever considered telling anyone. In 17 years of service, I have been through suicides of my peers, superiors and subordinates. Now I've decided to share my decision to live. If you're a survivor, please tell someone. It just might save their life.