The story of overcoming my suicidal ideations is personally challenging. As a field grade officer looking back, I feel I should have known better and not allowed myself to take the path I did. I have always done my part from leadership positions to publicly erase the stigma of seeking help, but privately I was unjustifiably fearful that seeking help as an officer would prevent me from having the career I wanted. Key officer positions are already competitive and I felt disclosing suicidal ideations would increase the risk of not being selected for positions and potentially ruin my career, security clearance, or relationships. I didn't believe there were enough private, confidential reporting options. Mostly, I did not want anyone to switch to using kid gloves around me because they thought I couldn’t handle normal duty stressors just because I was struggling with very specific personal ones. For those reasons, I let things quietly build and reach a point I never should have.
When I returned from my second deployment I chose not to talk about the events which lingered on my mind, instead attempting to deal with them quietly and privately on my own. I had lost good friends and as a leader, personally felt I was to blame for some Soldiers not coming home. Unable to prevent my thoughts from wandering back to that blame and unable to get through certain combat anniversaries without welling up, I saw a provider at my wife's request. I explained everything, including being quicker to anger than before and confessed the thought of suicide seemed to linger longer than normal despite the ability to always rationalize out of it. After only two sessions, the provider explained it was not PTSD because I could clearly identify my triggers and since I was, in his words, "not actively suicidal," the solution was to just do whatever hobbies helped me relax. I proceeded to use that excuse as a completely clean bill of mental health no matter what happened afterward. Over the following several years I began struggling internally to find purpose, all while those feelings never really got better, and life and career challenges continued.
Eventually, for multiple reasons built up in my mind, despite success as both a company commander and battalion intelligence officer in garrison and combat, I felt like a failure as an officer, a Soldier, a parent, and a husband. I felt I had let all my mentors down. When my wife and kids took a vacation while I stayed home because of work obligations, I had the epiphany the time was right. Completely emotionless and sober, I took my handgun, charged the weapon, and grabbed a notebook. In a random 11th hour decision, I decided before I wrote my note to do a dry-fire to see if I could go through with it. I cleared the weapon, put it against my chest, and squeezed the trigger. Only the sound of the pin firing is what snapped me out of it. In a moment of total clarity, I realized and even said out loud, "What am I doing?" At that moment I understood why every jumper survivor says they regretted it the second they left the ledge.
Still afraid of impacts on my career, I continued keeping everything to myself for years afterward. I gained weight from ignoring my health/diet, struggled with mental/emotional health on several days, but never again thought suicide was an answer. While it was a slow process, I finally started moving in the right direction after a lot of self-study, meditation, and reflection. I am thankful every day I am still here, but not at all in how I got to that conclusion. In that moment of action, I had no desire to call or talk to anyone. Had I gone through with it, it would have been no one's fault but my own; the emotions were mine, I chose to try and deal with them quietly and alone, and I spent whatever emotional energy I had leftover on hiding my feelings from the people close to me whom I thought would have noticed. I was sober and reached a logical conclusion in my twisted mindset which I had let linger for too long and become my version of normal. It was the pure luck of the last-minute decision which made me realize suicide would be a mistake.
The system had failed me and the fear of judgment or career impacts scared me away from reaching out, allowing my suicidal ideations to quietly evolve into illogical action. I share my story now with the hope it prevents others from making the same mistake I did. When I first told my story to a small group of trusted friends, it encouraged one to reach out to some of his friends to check-in, one of whom was planning on committing suicide that very same day. That call and the discussion which followed convinced him to get help instead. The fact my story helped drive that action made me decide to be even more public about my experience.
Prevention goes further than intervention. Beyond reaction to a suicide event, even before intervention at the sign of ideations, prevention means attacking issues at the root of the problem. True prevention is taking care of ourselves and others before mental health even has the opportunity to evolve into suicidal ideations. This is true for civilians, contractors, Soldiers, leaders, and all of our family members alike. No one is immune to the potential for untreated mental health to deteriorate and no one is expected to fight it alone because of their rank, position, or social status. Everyone having issues or thoughts of suicide in any capacity needs to talk to someone before it becomes something worse, and do so without fear of negative impacts on their life or career. Leaders at all levels must engage, actively listen, and encourage their personnel about doing so.
If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, seek help. There are numerous resources to include military medical personal, mental health providers, chaplains, civilian health care providers, supervisors, commanders, and even your trusted peers can be great for helping you think more clearly. Military One Source, and the Veteran's Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, are also available to help, but if you or a loved one are in immediate danger, please call 9-1-1. My hope is we change the conversation, attack the root cause, and get as close as possible to zero for suicides.