JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, WA – The air was filled with a dense layer of fog and the sun was just beginning to rise as First Corps Unit Ministry Teams (UMTs) from across JBLM began their recent Ruck March for Life.
The event, designed by the 201st Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade chaplain to train UMTs so they in turn can then train their units, corresponded with October’s JBLM Foundational Readiness Day activities.
The goal of the event was to take the traditional Army Suicide Prevention training model out of the classroom and create awareness through challenging physical activities and teamwork instead. By applying lessons like the “Value of Life” and the “Courage to Live Ready” more creatively, instructors can promote greater resiliency within their organizations and be more effective at preventing suicide.
While the traditional Army Suicide Prevention model focuses primarily on intervention skills for Soldiers to help those struggling with suicide, the “Value of Life” training model focuses on the other side of the coin: emphasizing self-care and the responsibility each Soldier has to "Value their Own Life." Soldiers who do so are in a better position to help those around them who may be struggling with Suicide. “Value of Life” is not a program, it’s a philosophy and message that all Soldiers are valuable to their Family, their Squad, the JBLM community, and the Army.
Over twenty JBLM Unit Ministry Teams began their march with empty rucksacks. After the first mile, they added a 30 lb. sandbag to their pack. As life is a journey similar to the ruck march, the sandbag represented a significant life event taking place and adding more weight to each Soldier’s shoulders. Participants were warned that, for some, the weight becomes unbearable and they may begin to contemplate suicide.
Shouldering the now heavier packs, the Soldiers carried their new burden another mile where they added yet another 30 lb. sandbag to their load. The extra weight represented overcoming the stigma many Soldiers feel towards seeking help, and unhealthy coping strategies like isolating themselves and trying to go it alone, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, or taking it out on their loved ones.
Now stepping off with packs weighing 60 pounds, the Soldiers were encouraged by the Chaplain to start thinking about ways to boldly and proactively seek help.
As the Soldiers reached their third mile marker, and were really feeling the pain of the extra weight, they were happy to remove one sandbag from their rucks to represent seeking help from the many resources available on JBLM and in the surrounding community. The Chaplain reminded them that they still had to carry one sandbag to the next point to symbolize the work they must do, such as relationship counseling, budgeting their finances, or getting treatment for substance abuse. Though there is still some work to be done, the Soldiers now have support, upward direction, and most importantly - hope to carry on.
At the final point in the journey Soldiers were able to take out the last sandbag because they had "Valued their own Life," sought help, and overcame their personal life challenge. Now however, it was time to look to their buddies around them who may be facing something similar to what they had just been through and are struggling with suicidal ideations. Now however, the Soldiers were in a better position to help their buddies, who are still struggling with their own burdens. The Chaplain reminded the UMTs they are all valued members of the team and their team will always support them: suicide prevention is a total team effort. To reinforce that message, the Soldiers placed their remaining sandbags on stretchers and carried each other's burdens to the end of the course as a team.
"I plan to take this training and engage my Soldiers in suicide prevention differently after experiencing the kinetic, impactful Value of Life Ruck,” said Chaplain (CPT) Joel Taylor, one of the participants. “During the ruck I physically felt weight lift off my shoulders, and that motivated me to ask for help when I need it and then proactively offer help to those around me carrying their own extra emotional and psychological weight. Not to mention, I enjoyed getting out of the classroom environment and bonding with my fellow team members over some solid PT!”
The training wasn’t just in support of Readiness Day, it also focused on First Corps L.I.F.E. acronym: Soldiers Listen to one another, ask the right questions, and hear each other’s stories; Leaders take the time to Inspect their Soldiers, reinforce standards, recognize hard work, and demonstrate care; Leaders conduct Formal Counseling to provide feedback and make course corrections; and Soldiers Engage in a common dialogue, Elevate problems to the right resources for help, and Escort those in need to where they can get help. The essential message being “Your Life Matters.”
“The Value of Life Ruck is exactly what we need to reach our Soldiers. We are doing away with the non-interactive means of communication and conducting events that can really grab the attention and let our Soldiers know that we really care,” said SGM Delonda Carroll, the I Corps Chief Religious Affairs NCO. “As a leader, it provided me with innovative tools to train our Soldiers and get them the help they need by developing a team and gaining their trust. It is important to become vigilant in what type of help to provide, and that is what the Value of Life Ruck does, provide those resources.”
Soldiers and their leaders appreciate out of the box training, and the Value of Life Ruck delivered with tangible feelings of weight and relief representing life events and personal choices in a way no classroom ever could. Nothing reinforces a lesson like good physical exertion and even a little bit of pain – and now the JBLM UMTs are ready to pass on that lesson and give others the courage to live ready on their own personal journeys.