FORT BRAGG, N.C. - “I prayed to God to just take me. For one, I was a coward, I didn’t want to do it, and I would prefer He do it on His terms,” thought Sgt. Maj. Patrick McGrath, 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, as he contemplated suicide in 2019.
McGrath’s story goes back to his childhood. He said this was a relevant point because the Soldiers he serves with in the Army come from all walks of life.
“I didn’t have the best childhood,” said the 40-year-old McGrath, who was born at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps Base, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, but grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. “My father was in the Marines for seven years, but not during a time I can remember. My biological mother was a drug addict and alcoholic.”
McGrath said it was after high school where he discovered the taste of alcohol.
He said he attempted to go to college, but it didn’t pan out. He ended up becoming a manager of a well-known pizza chain, but didn’t feel a sense of purpose.
“I went home and told my parents (dad and stepmom) I was going to look at all the services,” he said, as his southern accent became pronounced. “I walked into the Army recruiting station first. (I was later) told I was leaving to go to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Stations) in two weeks, and that was 20 years ago.”
Purpose found in the Army
After joining the Army, McGrath said he still had a ‘backpack full of stuff’ stemming from his childhood, such as low self-esteem and no sense of value, but he felt he had a purpose.
“The Army gave me a little tag that told me this is how you wear your uniform, this is how you’re supposed to act and follow the five Rs (right place, right time, right attitude, right uniform and right appearance),” he said. “This will ensure you’re successful.”
McGrath said he was on the pathway to success, but there came a moment when he drank until he blacked out. He said it was the first time in his life he thought he was like his mom, a road he didn’t want to travel.
Manipulated the System
McGrath said he was ‘boozing it up’ only on the weekends. He hid his drinking habit, and no one suspected he had a problem. He had Soldiers who relied on him. He stayed focused all the while struggling with his own challenges, but his Soldier gave him a sense of purpose.
“When I came down on orders and went to Korea, everything was still good,” McGrath said. “I was a first sergeant. I still had that sense of purpose, but I started drinking more. Weekends morphed into weekdays. My performance declined, but I was really good at what I did, so it appeared to those around me, I was doing what I needed to do. I had manipulated my leadership because I was getting results.”
In November 2017, the sergeants major’s list came out, and his name was on the list. This meant he would be attending the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, in August 2018.
Alcohol’s Nasty Grip
“I’m in trouble,” he thought to himself. “I knew I was going to have to leave my Family, and I had no self-discipline. For 17 years, I had manipulated the Army.”
When McGrath came back to North Carolina after Korea, he opened up to his wife and stopped for about two months. However, he started plotting about drinking again. He left on July 13, 2018 for the academy and drank every day until Feb. 5, 2019.
“I showed up to the academy, was assigned a squad leader for accountability and stayed in a hotel for about 20 days before the class started August 8,” McGrath said. “Following the accountability check, I would go back to my room and be drunk by 1300 (1 p.m.). I was in my room crying because I already knew I had gone too far.”
McGrath said when school started, he became a bit more disciplined because there was a requirement from the Army. However, in order to thrive and succeed in the academy, he had to be self-disciplined, an area he failed at.
“I would wake up each day and tell myself I wasn’t going to drink,” he said. “I had the shakes, but no one knew I was going through this; it was a secret. I had three roommates, too, and they had no idea.”
McGrath said one day he was driving to school and started to plan how he was going to kill himself.
“There’s these crazy overpasses in El Paso and people jump off there all the time,” he said. “That was my plan, too.”
For whatever reason, McGrath said his wife knew what was going on. She put two and two together. On Feb. 5, 2019, he bolstered the courage to ask for help.
“I went into the instructors’ office at the academy and said ‘If I don’t get help, I’m going to kill myself,’ ” McGrath said, with an emotional pause as if reliving the conversation. “I ended up going to resident treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas (Joint Base San Antonio). I went back to the academy on April 9, 2019, was dropped for medical reasons, and came back to Fort Bragg.”
The support he received was opposite from what he thought it would be.
“I couldn’t comprehend the academy instructors being so supportive,” McGrath said. “I thought they would say I was letting the NCO Corps down and the academy down. Their reaction gave me hope that I could still one day wear the rank of sergeant major. The experience also impacted my spiritual relationship with God. God was using them to tell me it was going to be OK!”
Elizabeth Bechtel, Fort Bragg’s Suicide Prevention Program manager, said it is important to educate the community on Suicide Prevention/Intervention for a couple of reasons.
“The one thing we hear time and time again from those who survived an attempted suicide is they just wanted someone to listen to them,” she said. “So, teaching active listening skills and how to care when someone is in crisis is very important."
McGrath echoed that sentiment. He added his Family, the academy instructors, the treatment in San Antonio, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and having the opportunity to help others who are struggling has renewed his purpose.
He said there are a lot of people like him and he wants them to know their darkness can turn into light.
“I finished the non-resident portion of the academy on April 3, 2020 and was promoted to sergeant major August 1, 2020,” McGrath said. “I’ve been sober for 588 days.”
(Editor’s note: If someone is seeking help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255; reach out to behavioral health, a chaplain, after hours emergency room, or to a trusted friend.)