Driving Change in Suicide Prevention- Lessons Learned

By Command Sergeant Major James A. CookSeptember 25, 2020

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There are a few things about my career that are difficult to talk about. Losing a young Soldier under my leadership is one of the hardest. In 2016, I was in a first sergeant position. One particular night, an alarm went off in a secure area at about 0100. I responded to the alarm along with a specialist who lived in the barracks. It was the last personal interaction I would have with him before being told that he committed suicide two weeks later. I wish the events of that night had unfolded differently. I wish I had been more vigilant as a leader. He has completely changed the way I interact with other Soldiers, and he has taught me some valuable lessons.

We threw a football back and forth while we waited for the security team to arrive on the scene. I was surprised to see him drinking a Mountain Dew at that hour, so I asked about it. He said he does not sleep well anyway, so he did not think there was anything wrong with that. Was that a clue I missed that night? He wasn't sleeping well. I let it go, but I should have inquired further. I should have asked if there was more to it. I should have talked to him about nutrition and how his choices may be causing his lack of sleep. He was a quiet kind of guy, kept to himself often playing video games in the evening. At other times, he joked with us, uplifting the spirits of others in the unit.

In hindsight, I should have talked to him about different avenues for help. I should have said something. The color around his eyes was a sign that his sleep and diet weren't what they should have been. I also wonder if the lack of activities available to Soldiers in the barracks were insufficient? He was staying up late into the early hours of the morning playing video games partially because there was not much else to do. Had I considered these things during that time, I would have worked to get him the help he needed. At the very least, I should have pulled his team leader in to make sure his leadership team was tracking his health and wellness.

About two weeks after we had played catch, he never showed up to formation. His barracks room was checked, but he was not there. His roommate said he had been housesitting for a friend downtown, so we sent a Private First Class to look for him. There, he was found deceased due to suicide.

The unit was in shock. It was and still is, extremely hard for me to process. I feel responsible to this day. Several of the unit members ended up in mental health for several sessions and although we continued our mission, our minds were still dealing with what had just occurred. Some of the units' training was cut short due to the incident, and it was at least six months before we were able to fully return to a normal training schedule. As a team, we relived the loss over and over in our minds.

During that time, I also attended counseling sessions with mental health. The overwhelming emotions made it difficult to concentrate; the guilt is still there. I can see my interactions with him were not sufficient as his First Sergeant. I did not do enough to fulfill my duties and responsibilities to him. That will always weigh heavily on me. Ultimately, I know my Soldier's suicide was not my fault, but his wellbeing was my responsibility. Every Soldier deserves leadership that is willing to go the extra mile to be involved in their Soldier's holistic livelihood.

I had the misconception that the typical, "Good Morning, how is it going today?" meant I was open to discussion from my Soldiers. The usual response of, "I'm good, living the dream" was sufficient for me. I thought those words were enough to show that, as a leader, I was approachable and available to talk if they needed it. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have to do more. I want my Soldiers to come talk to me and tell me about what's going on in their lives. They may have had a fight with their spouse, external stress from a parent, or difficulties with others at work. These things affect not only their performance but their mental health as well. In my leadership role today I want to make these interactions more frequent, more accepted, and fully confidential. COVID-19 amplifies the importance of this practice. Telework and isolation mean that even those loose connections in the hallway are no longer happening, and I know now, were never enough in the first place. Meaning if Soldiers won't open up to their leaders, or at least to their battle buddies, it's going to make this war on suicide much more difficult to win.

Upon reflection, I think there are many things that we as Army leaders can improve on regarding suicide prevention. We must know each other better. All Soldiers, peers, subordinate and leaders alike, need to feel comfortable sharing their personal lives with one another, and leaders need to make it safe to do so. Additionally, we need to introduce more teambuilding/family events that help us identify personality traits and understand how each member of the team communicates. Some people are more introverted and don't mind being by themselves. It doesn't mean they are suicidal. Rather, it can be healthy for introverts to rest and recuperate by being alone. Others may be more extroverted and recharge by being surrounded by others. If we don't understand our Soldiers, how can identify changes in behavior? In the end, we will miss critical information about our dedicated Service Members that show us the early warning signs of suicidal behavior.

When Brig. Gen. Anthony R. Hale, commander, U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, arrived, he told us that we must increase communication and flatten the organization. I couldn't agree more. Soldiers need to feel comfortable going to leaders and opening up to them without repercussion or judgment. Leaders must feel comfortable getting involved with Soldiers by getting to know personality types, strengths and weaknesses, and family dynamics. These small changes in how we interact could save a life, and there's no telling the impact that one life can have on thousands of others. We can't afford to lose our Soldiers to suicide. Leaders must ask the tough questions about relationships, finances, health, wellness, and depression. Not a single Soldier in today's Army is expected to do it alone. We have help and resources, but we have to do the work. I hope others learn from my experience and make that decision to be more involved in their Soldiers' lives every single day. I hope others learn the necessity to get involved in their Soldiers' lives now. We can drive this change and prevent suicides through our decision to act.

Command Sergeant Major James Cook is part of the command team of the 304th Military Intelligence Battalion, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, as part of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence.