The month of September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is a tragic event that touches the lives of many Americans, to include our Soldiers.
Many of us in our lifetime have encountered a friend, family, brother or sister in arms that has attempted or died by suicide, which in turn has created a mental scar for many of us. Often times we blame ourselves for not picking up on the signs sooner rather than later.
The Army Five Dimensions of Personal Readiness are physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and family. These five dimensions are essential to our force and should guide us in effectively approaching, engaging—but most importantly communicating—with our team.
Men and women join the military to serve their country, and often do so to escape adversity and in hopes of connecting with an organization that will help them heal their scars and face their fears. Most young citizens are looking for guidance from someone who will believe in them, trust them, and have an open ear they can rely on.
Leaders will argue that counseling is the best practice in getting to know our Soldiers. However, when we are counseling our Soldiers, are we asking those open-ended questions that are tied to the five dimensions?
Are we injecting ourselves into a deeper-rooted level of understanding that will allow us to leverage our resources in helping our Soldiers and their families in preventing catastrophic incidents such as suicide?
As leaders we must make it a habit to deeply counsel and effectively communicate with our Soldiers. It is easy to cut and paste a vague statement on how a Soldier is performing in a DA 4856 counseling, but it takes much more effort to properly analyze the identified Soldiers’ strengths and weaknesses. In order to do so, we must ask those hard questions strategically.
The best time to bond with your team as a squad leader is during physical training. For example, if you have a stellar performer who all of a sudden is no longer deadlifting 300 pounds, you may ask yourself, could it possibly be that his physical dimension may be broken due to a potential injury, or is the Soldier scared to admit he or she is injured due to the stigma of being called “weak?” How about a young emotional Soldier whose affect always projects sadness? Is it because of a financial burden? Sexual abuse? Family matters? Or is he or she afraid to seek services at behavioral health facilities because of what their leaders may think?
How about the Soldier who was well known for participating in the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program, or BOSS, and every Morale Welfare and Recreation outdoor activity, and now does not want to leave his or her room or socialize with anyone? How about Sergeant Doe, who consistently expresses to Private First Class Snuffy—who is a strong Catholic—that his spiritual God does not exist here in our force? How about Sergeant Snooze, the noncommissioned officer who enjoyed fishing with her family, but is going through a divorce because she could not balance her work and personal life?
The well-being of our troops is encompassed in all the dimensions of Personal Readiness. Nevertheless, we will never know the hurdles our Soldiers are experiencing unless we get to the root of their well-being and build trust, uphold our oath, exercise our creeds, and live by the Army values.
I will never forget my battle buddy Staff Sergeant Smile, who took his life a year after his last deployment to Afghanistan after having been honorably discharged from service to his country.
Staff Sergeant Smile received the Purple Heart Medal for his heroic actions during combat. He always came to work motivated and prepared to teach, coach, and mentor his platoon. He deeply loved his son who he always spoke of and was always eager to spend time with after duties hours.
When I received the news of his suicide, I was dismayed. I could not believe such news. The grief caused by losing a special brother in arms feels like a rollercoaster full of intense emotions and everything in between.
We later found out that Staff Sergeant Smile was battling depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, infidelity, and loneliness during and after his Army service. Could we have identified his emotional and family dimension struggles sooner? We will never know. The feelings of guilt remain.
If one or more of these dimensions are broken, it can tremendously affect our Soldiers’ well-being, the unit climate, and mission readiness. Most Soldiers that join the Army come in with one or more of these dimensions already broken.
We as leaders cannot add more fuel to the fire. We must be cognizant of how we engage our subordinates and battle buddies.
We have to empower them by building trust, providing an open ear, and partaking in conversations that will lead us to the root of the challenges a Soldier may be facing. This is what it means to put “People First.”