FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Forty-four years ago, Gerry Ross, 26, borrowed a forearm, drove to a quiet place and killed himself. Gartri Wild, his daughter, who is his namesake. shared his story for the first time with 171 Screaming Eagle Soldiers during a suicide prevention training Sept. 16 at Wilson Theater.
"I want you to know this is a topic that is very personal to me and this is something I never discuss with anyone. However, I do want to have this conversation because I hope my experience provides insight into life after suicide,” said Wild, whose mother was pregnant with her when her father died by suicide. “I hope my experience gives you something to think about and something to remember. I hope it helps you or someone who you know.”
Her voice shook and she held back tears, but Wild pushed on to share her experience.
“Even though it’s hard, it’s important to talk about the affect of a suicide. That’s what people don’t talk about,” said Wild, a support coordinator at Army Community Service-Survivor Outreach Services. “Maybe, if [Soldiers] ever find themselves in that place, they will remember my story. Stress and problems are temporary, but suicide is a finality. This is an important conversation to have.”
Wild opened the discussion by asking Soldiers to raise a hand if they knew someone who had died by suicide. Hands quickly shot into the air. Then, she asked the crowd to raise their second hand if they knew more than one person who had died by suicide. Nearly every person in the crowd had both hands raised.
Corporal George Babbage, B Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Abn. Div., was one of the Soldiers with his hand raised.
“I am notorious, in every unit I’ve ever been in, for being that guy who looks out for Soldiers and their mental health,” Babbage said. “I had a friend kill themself and I never want to experience that ever again.”
In a quarterly report released by the Department of Defense, the total number of service members who died by suicide across the armed forces in 2020 totaled 689 lives. Of those, 175 were active-duty Soldiers, roughly 25% of the national total. So far, in 2021, 79 Soldiers have died by suicide, and 191 Soldiers are projected to die by suicide, according to the report. Since January, 10 Soldiers at Fort Campbell have died by suicide, said Charlie Washington, Suicide Prevention Program manager and Army Substance Abuse Program specialist.
“For just a moment, I’d like to ask you all to forget you are Soldiers in the world’s most elite fighting force. I’m asking you to forget you wear that uniform,” Wild said. “I want you to remember you are human beings, and as human beings we all face life situations that can cause stress. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, how intelligent you are, how perfect or imperfect your life is, what your rank is or how many friends you have. You are not exempt from stress and pain.”
These emotions can build up over time and become too heavy for a person to shoulder, Wild said. In these overwhelming moments, suicide can seem like the only way out.
“When my dad made the decision to pull that trigger, he created a ripple effect that he could not have perceived,” she said.
“He had no way of knowing how his decision to kill himself would change the lives of those he loved the most forever,” Wild said. “When someone decides to take their life, they do end their suffering, but they hand that pain over to the people they love the most and we carry that pain for the rest of our lives.”
Wild has spent a lot of time thinking about how her father’s decision impacted the lives of everyone he loved including his mother, wife and daughters.
“He didn’t consider that my mom would never stop grieving or blaming herself. That my sister and I would have to witness her grief. He didn’t consider how his death would deteriorate the health of his own mother who would die just five years after him,” she said. “He didn’t consider that I would walk down the aisle alone on my wedding day. He will never know his grandchildren and they will never know him.”
As a child, Wild blamed herself for her father’s death and often wondered if she was the reason he committed suicide. As she grew older into a teenager, she became ashamed of the way he died.
“When people asked me why I was named ‘Gari’ I would tell them I was named after my dad, and then I would lie and say he died from a disease,” Wild said. “It was partially true because in my mind he was sick at the time of his death. At that time, I wasn’t able to comprehend why my parent chose to leave, so how could I possibly explain that to other people? Lying was easier than telling the truth.”
Over her lifetime, Wild has spent hours at her father’s grave, reflecting on what could have been.
“There isn’t a day that has gone by that I haven’t yearned for his presence. I relish any story or any bit of information people have about him. His absence created a void in my life that can never be filled,” she said. “I have always wished he was present and that I could talk to him. I have always wished he had made the choice to stay.”
On the day of his death, Ross’s friends and family members admitted he acted strangely. However, they never anticipated he was going to kill himself. Wild said her father chose to suffer in silence, as many people do.
“Most people remain silent because it is easier than discussing something that tears through your very soul,” she said.
In the Army, “soldiering on” is a common saying. While it may be appropriate in some situations, Wild said it isn’t acceptable when it comes to mental health.
“Are you silently suffering so you won’t be seen as a problem? Are you silently suffering because it is hard to talk about something personal that is hurting? You cannot shoulder everything and it is OK to talk to others if you are having a hard time,” she said.
Wild encouraged the Soldiers to check on one another often.
“Silence does not mean someone is doing well,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they are coping. None of us are exempt from the things in life that create stress and can drive suicidal tendencies.”
Wild was motivated to face her fear and share her story, because she hopes it will have an impact on the Soldiers.
“Over the course of my life, when I would hear of other people that I knew had taken their life … it just tears at your insides because you know what that means for the Family and you know what that’s like,” she said. “It hurts you so deeply.”
Wild wishes she could have talked with her dad the day of his death, to help him think things through more rationally.
Babbage said he constantly talks with his Soldiers to ensure they are in a good place. He doesn’t want to have any regrets, even if it means destroying his friendship with someone.
“I’m willing to wreck a friendship just to make sure they stay with us,” he said.
Year ago, Babbage confronted his then-roommate. He was concerned he may consider suicide.
“He’s the first person I helped,” Babbage said. “He was mad at me and he never wanted to talk to me again. A few years later he reached out. He graduated from college. He’s married now and he’s happy. He told me he was grateful for what I did because he was going to kill himself if it hadn’t been for me.”
Babbage said the training was different than anything he had experienced before.
Specialist Aidan McGonigoe, B Co., 1-26th Inf. Regt., said he wants to learn more about preventing suicide within the ranks.
“It’s not often that someone from outside the military comes to speak with us, especially about something like this,” he said. “Wild sharing her personal experience and the impact it had on her life was very moving. It’s definitely a different perspective than how the Army typically handles suicide prevention.”
Washington said this is the first time Soldiers have received a training focused on the aftermath of suicide.
“Soldiers never get the opportunity to hear the story of someone who continues to live with that loss every day,” Washington said. “The goal of this training was to give Soldiers a different perspective of the impact suicide has on you and hopefully allow that person to reflect on their life or the life of someone who be struggling right now.”
It is important for Soldiers to receive suicide prevention and awareness training because it helps them recognize the warning signs in others and themselves. It also is an opportunity for Soldiers to familiarize themselves with resources available to them.
“Soldiers are still people,” he said. “A person who contemplates suicide does so based on their perspective of their life at that moment. The suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Babbage and McGonigoe are determined to bring Wild’s message back to the Blue Spaders of 1-26th Inf. Regt.
“I see this as an opportunity to teach these guys,” Babbage said. “Usually as an infantry company we are typically battle drills all day. That’s all the classes that we ever get is how to fight. So, this will be a change of subject on something that affects them too. We train hard so we don’t die on the battlefield, and we need to train hard so we don’t die at home