In 2019, the Department of Defense lost 498 service members to suicide. A Defense Department report states that the number of service members lost are going up, not down. And while comprehensive data is not yet available for 2020, senior leaders are concerned about the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being of servicemembers and families.
To combat the scourge of suicide, First Army is supporting the Life Worth Living series, an Army Vice Chief of Staff initiative intended to prevent suicide in the ranks. Supported by the Chaplain, the Surgeon, and the Life Worth Living program manager, First Army senior leaders meet monthly with senior leaders from other commands for a discussion and brainstorming panel, where members conduct a focused approach to program evaluation to assess existing policies and programs, as well as implement, as appropriate, evidence-informed initiatives gathered from the ever-evolving science on suicide prevention.
Maj. Heather Deters, First Army SHARP manager, facilitates First Army’s participation.
“It started in the summer when there was an uptick in suicides and the vice chief of staff of the Army sat down with three- and four-star commanders. It started as a discussion to deal with Soldier issues and asking what kind of programs can be put in place so leaders know how to talk to their Soldiers.”
There are two distinct audiences in the series, Deters said. One is chaired by the vice chief, with major command leaders present. Then there are those that are held internally by those major commands. For the meetings in First Army headquarters, First Army general officers join with the command surgeon and command chaplain, along with Deters.
“They do different topics and different themes,” Deters said. “They had one where they had Soldiers and young leaders come in who had either experienced a Soldier commit suicide or they had saved a Soldier from committing suicide. They will touch on issues such as access to behavioral health or the stigma that comes with going to get treatment.”
Another session dealt with how senior leaders can best teach junior leaders on how to identify high-risk individuals.
“With the younger NCOs and team leaders and platoon leaders, they don’t have that many life experiences, so how do they deal with a young Soldier dealing with a finance issue or a relationship issue when they haven’t experienced that,” Deters asked. “That’s a big part of the discussion: How do we get the young Soldiers and leaders to identify and relate to the young Soldiers and earn their trust?”
The First Army Command Chaplain, Chaplain (Col). Scott Brown, is a principal advisor to the group. His team is focused on analyzing the causes of suicide and intervening in Soldiers’ lives prior to a crisis to prevent them from killing themselves.
Part of this, Brown said, was building spiritual resilience. Brown noted that people who base their identity on physical or mental attributes will see those qualities diminish with age.
“If I build my identity on a spiritual foundation, that doesn’t waver,” Brown said.
But whether or not a struggling person is religious, the chaplains will work though their life’s issues with them.
“We’re going to talk about it and we’re going to go into depth on who he is and why he’s feeling that way and what he’s thinking,” Brown said. “And I’m going to try and get that individual to agree to a number of things. Number one, that you would not hurt yourself without calling me. That’s a commitment, a promise, and most folks aren’t going to break it. I’m also going to ask them if they’re willing to go with me to go talk to somebody else because I’m a big fan of using the whole of health resources.”
Besides being a tragedy, suicide can be a readiness issue.
“We lost the life, which is huge and cannot be replaced, but we have also lost everything that person came with, and it effects everyone in the unit,” Brown said.
So a premium is placed on preventing this, and getting to the issue’s roots, which can be varied. For example, a breakup or an inability to form relationships is a frequent factor.
“As a society, we communicate that if you’ve lost a relationship, you’ve lost everything,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Ryan Steenburg, First Army plans, operations and training chaplain. “If we can improve relationships and we can help persons learn how to improve relationships, that’s going to be a huge difference maker.”
Other factors can be environmental, according to Master Sgt. Varian Montgomery, First Army chief religious affairs NCO.
“You think about people stationed in Alaska where it’s cold and isolated,” he said. “There are limited resources, there’s no sunlight, it’s gray, and I know Alaska has a serious issue with suicidal ideations.”
But, he added, a feeling of isolation can occur anywhere.
“It’s also an issue in Hawaii,” Montgomery said. “There are a lot of first-term Soldiers away from their families and social connections, and Hawaii is 60 miles round and you can’t go anywhere.”
Finances can also be a factor, he added, as can social media since people tend to highlight the best parts of their lives and someone scrolling a news feed might begin to think their life fails to measure up.
Whatever the cause, a key countermeasure is building resilience through fitness, said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Carl Livingston, First Army deputy command chaplain.
“When persons have feelings of despair or hopelessness where they feel the only outlet they have is to take themselves out, I’ve found that they don’t have a resiliency program,” he explained. “So one of the things we talk about as part of First Army’s identity is spiritual fitness, emotional fitness, mental fitness, and physical fitness. These are all preventive measures so that you have a regular outlet that’s ingrained into your battle rhythm and prevents suicidal ideations.”
When life begins to wear someone down, that program is there to lift them back up.
“Whenever stress, anxiety, and depression are not being managed through a sound resiliency program, it’s going to lead to a downward spiral,” Livingston said. “It’s important that people are intentional in having a resiliency program because prevention is better than repair.”
Service members and veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a service member or veteran in crisis, can call the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.”