CAMP BULLIS, Texas – In walking into an Army Reserve ‘Stand for Life’ suicide prevention training event, one may encounter dancing, stretching exercises, podcast interviews, and a good amount of collaboration taking place.
One thing that is minimized is the reliance on “Power Point” slide training where an instructor teaches and students stare endlessly at a presentation.
The 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command, headquartered in the Chicago-land area, partnered with staffs from the Army Reserve’s Psychological Health Program and the 76th Operational Response Command for the fourth ‘Stand for Life’ suicide prevention training event. The first SFL that took place in 2018 brought Army Reserve Soldiers and Civilians, from across the country, to prepare them as suicide prevention liaisons to train and assist their units across the Army Reserve.
“In this training, we focus on our spiritual self, our intellectual self in how I feed my mind, our physical self to include meditation, stretching, exercises and we get into relationships and finances. Because relationships and finances are some of the leading causes to why people suicide,” said Carmella Navarro, suicide prevention program manager for the 85th USARSC.
Navarro, who is also a licensed counselor, stated the SFL is an evolution of training and with a thorough outlined training plan, it continues to evolve.
“We’ve seen the ‘deer in the headlights’ training and in this training we want to engage people, and hear what they have to say,” said Navarro. “And once we started doing that, the climate of the training changed.”
Throughout the three-day training program, which was held at Camp Bullis, Texas for its fourth iteration, discusses training around preventative measures, intervention and even talks to post-vention for what to do after a suicide has taken place. Stacey Feig, team leader for the Army Reserve’s Psychological Health Program, shared that collaborative efforts have taken place between the PHP and USAR’s suicide prevention programs to better engage in the best interest of Soldiers and the Army Family.
“Behavioral health is so crucial to this program,” said Feig. “When we collaborate, it creates a better web of safety for our Soldiers. And we want to have the same language and understanding so we can speak that consistent message to our Soldiers and Commands.”
Brig. Gen. Ernest Litynski, Commanding General, 85th USARSC, joined the conversation and spoke with the attendees about his personal experiences and struggles with post-traumatic stress. In his remarks, he emphasized that there is nothing wrong with asking for help and that the training taking place was a force multiplier in taking care of Soldiers and removing mental health stigma.
“I think this is one of the best “connected” learnings I’ve seen and it will improve readiness and make people first ring true,” said Litynski. “This training is breaking it down to the human element and teaching how we can become better human beings. Whether in uniform, as a (Department of the Army) Civilian, a spouse, family member or extended community partner, this is transformational and improving the human spirit.”
Tyler Montgomery, SPPM for the 76th ORC, stated that this topic is equivalent and as important as not leaving a battle buddy behind on the battlefield. He added that the Army has implemented the idea of holistic self-care pillars to care of Soldiers, and that concept has been incorporated with this training.
“There have been so many trainings and initiatives but to have a program that’s so tailored to empower our liaisons, to feel that they can actually help in a situation with the Soldier is fantastic,” said Montgomery. “With Stand for Life, we are allying ourselves with This Is My Squad. I’m not going to leave my battle buddy behind. I care to know what’s going on in your life and I’ll say something when I notice something wrong.”
Feig added that no matter how strong or capable a person may look, everyone eventually becomes tired. It is always ok to ask for help and if someone looks like they are struggling, reach out to them.
“We are not asking anyone to move mountains or to fix a major life crisis, but in a moment, if you become aware and take small action and connect, then that may be the thing that gets someone through that day, that hour, that two minutes, until they are able to see an alternative,” said Feig.
Command Sgt. Maj. Theodore Dewitt, Command Sergeant Major, 85th USARSC, visited Camp Bullis and conducted a podcast interview, there, as well as met with the training audience to share his thoughts on the topic. He emphasized the point of leaders connecting with their Soldiers but that it must start at the most junior level. And he incorporated how the Army’s This Is My Squad initiative builds on that.
“Our people and our Soldiers are our most valuable resource,” said Dewitt. “This Is My Squad is all about the team, the battle buddy concept. And to institutionalize that at the most junior level builds connectedness amongst Soldiers. TIMS lets Soldiers know that they always have someone that they can reach out to.”
Dewitt shared stories on how he dealt with losing people to suicide and expressed his concerns over the past year in the face of COVID-19 with a lack of connectedness to Soldiers.
“With no (in-person) battle assemblies, no in-person meetings, we were losing sight of what is happening in the formations. It was more important to reach out to Soldiers and communicate on a regular basis,” said Dewitt. “I want people to leave here feeling comfortable that Stand for Life is connectedness and makes you part of a family.”
For Navarro, and her team, they emphasized how critical the topic and the training are but also realized that with such a sensitive and potentially mentally draining issue, a sense of fun has to be incorporated into learning and moving forward to refuel the mind and body.
“It’s important to have fun in this because it is a serious topic and it can take a lot of one’s energy and mental strength,” said Navarro. “I want people to know that they can do hard things and they don’t have to be perfect. It may just take one ‘How are you?’ with authenticity.”
Navarro shared that throughout each SFL, the training teams have grown and because of how the program is a collaborative effort, new components continue to evolve into the program as new minds enter the discussion.
“Establishing relationships is my biggest goal,” said Navarro. “The trainers that are here I once knew as just students and now they are my master trainers.”
Emmanuel Castrolugo was one of Navarro’s most recent new trainers who incorporated a podcast to the training event that reached more than 20 states upon its first posting.
Staff Sgt. Sharion Tinson, assigned to the 326th Chemical Company in Memphis, Tennessee, was one of thirty-one participants in the training. Tinson who holds a degree in social psychology and human development shared that she has an extensive background in mental health and has spent most of her adult life working in this field.
“In this class, I get to just be Sharion. This program allows people to just talk as humans, with no rank structure,” said Tinson.
Tinson touched on a personal story when her grandfather passed away and at the time, for her, it felt like no one saw her pain that she was in. But as a message to others, she added to listen to your instincts if something does not seem right.
“Trust your instincts,” said Tinson. “When you feel like something is wrong, there’s a high probability that something’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with checking into it.”
From senior leaders, trainer to the training audience, the continuous message seemed to be the importance of connectedness and how people come together.
“In this program, when people give interaction, we learn and we grow,” said Feig. “They learn and grow and the program changes and incorporates that, so that it feels like it matters and that is what makes this so powerful.”