FORT LEE, Va. – Showing support of the annual Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month campaign, senior leaders from across the installation gathered at the Memorial Chapel Family Life Center Thursday morning for a kickoff breakfast and proclamation signing.
Distinguished guests included Maj. Gen. Mark T. Simerly, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, and Col. Karin L. Watson, Fort Lee garrison commander. Their senior enlisted counterparts – Command Sgt. Maj. Jorge C. Escobedo and CSM Tamisha A. Love, respectively – also attended.
The SAPM campaign officially begins Sept. 1. This year’s theme, “Connect to Protect, Support is Within Reach” served as the central topic of discussion during the breakfast.
“It’s a message that’s so important,” Watson observed in her remarks. “When we lose someone, there’s always those questions of what that person was thinking and who could have been there to offer help. The whole point of this effort is to really reach out – not just leaders but everyone – and remind others that we’re willing to listen and there are resources such as the experts in this room who can help individuals get through the troubles they’re going through.”
Mirroring the last part of her statement are the passages of a SAPM pledge signed by senior leaders at the event. Claire Dermer, Suicide Prevention Program manager, said the document that will be on display in various headquarters locations around post in the coming weeks underscores the command’s commitment to “fostering an environment of connection” and an effort to protect Team Lee members throughout the year.
“I am a leader. I will be there doing all I can to protect human life, for nothing is more valuable,” the pledge begins.
“I will be there, intervening when needed, not standing idly by,” later passages read. “I will be there, knowing the concerns of my service members, family members, Department of Defense Civilians and contractors and the resources that can assist them. I will be there, fostering trust so team members feel comfortable asking me for help. I will be there enforcing a climate in which seeking help is not only accepted, but also expected.”
Senior Command Chaplain Col. Thomas E. Allen served as the featured speaker of the breakfast. He cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to drive home the point of how prevalent suicide is in America. With 123 casualties daily, on average, it is the 10th leading cause of death in the country; the second leading cause of death for persons 25 to 44 years old; and the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24.
“I believe (Connect to Protect) gets to the heart of the issue,” Allen observed. “It is primarily through relationships that we can help stem the tide of this persistent crisis. … Connectedness is a resiliency factor that can reduce the likelihood of someone considering or attempting suicide when they have tough times. Social connections, friendships, faith communities, strong families and a sense of belonging can be protective factors.”
He reminded the audience of COVID-19’s impact. After more than a year of mask wearing, social distancing, stay-home directives and community gathering restrictions, many are feeling stressed and isolated.
“This added disconnectedness can be associated with an increased risk of suicide,” Allen emphasized. “So, it’s more important than ever for us to work together and find ways to … help our (community members) feel like they are part of the great Army Family we all know and serve.”
Achieving the end state of greater connectedness will require caring, creative thinking and communication, according to Allen. He recalled earlier days in the Army when unit functions such as dining-ins, hail and farewell parties, and Family Readiness Group socials were the go-to-methods for building connections and esprit de corps.
“That part of our Army culture has been lost to decreasing budgets and increasing operational requirements. If there was ever a time when we need creative minds to help us discover new ways to connect, this is it. … We need creative, caring people to re-instill that part of the culture.”
Allen offered a “preacher’s list” for building connectedness and resiliency. He shared how he speaks to the junior Soldier detailed to garrison headquarters for cleaning. He listens to their stories and reminds them that everything they do in the Army is a character-building step to their military career.
He encouraged leaders to share stories about the points in their career when they were struggling and found help through the chain of command or community services. It is a proven method for encouraging and inspiring younger Soldiers to seek help themselves.
“You have to listen,” was the next point. “(It’s) the most important suicide deterrent I have used in my entire ministry. … I’ve been there in that moment when a Soldier was (considering suicide), and just simply said, ‘hey what’s going on?’ I just sat there and listened to their story. … It averted that situation, (and I would ask them later) ‘What made you change your mind?’ Almost to a tee, they would say it was because you listened to me. I just needed somebody to listen, somebody to hear.”
Breaking down common misconceptions and reversing stigmas about seeking care was another recommendation offered. Allen suggested couching it in terms of military readiness. “Let’s emphasize to Soldiers that reaching out for help actually ensures mission capability because it also benefits the unit and makes families more resilient. ... So seeking help is something we want you to do.”
Encouraging Soldiers to seek help early also is necessary, Allen said. Referencing conversations he has had with Soldiers already facing a divorce or in the process of filing bankruptcy, he noted how an observant leader could have stepped in earlier to encourage marital or budget counseling.
At another point in his remarks, Allen spoke highly of the strong working relationship at Fort Lee between Behavioral Health, his team of chaplains, the Military Family Life consultants and the suicide prevention manager, saying it is unlike anything he has witnessed over his 20-year military career.