FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Mental health advocate and suicide prevention educator David Woods Bartley visited Fort Leonard Wood this week to share ideas and assist the Army in addressing suicide.
“Connection creates hope, and hope saves lives,” he said to an audience of Soldiers May 24 at the Main Post Chapel.
Bartley spoke from personal experience, recounting his own suicide attempt and his personal journey, “from mental hell-ness to mental wellness.”
“It all begins on Aug. 31, 2011,” he said. “That was the day I was going to kill myself.”
After typing out a suicide note to his wife and family, Bartley said he drove to the 730-foot-tall Foresthill Bridge, near Auburn, California — not far from his home — and walked to the mid-way point. He stopped to think about whether or not he would feel the impact, calling it a “life-saving curiosity.”
“I’d done the math,” he said. “It was going to take seven-and-a-half seconds to fall, but would I feel the impact?”
As he thought about the question in his head, that hesitation was long enough for a passing motorist to call for help. Bartley said the sheriff’s deputy who approached him on the bridge did “two critical things — things that we can do for our Soldiers.”
“The first thing he did was establish contact,” Bartley said. “Then he created connection, and connection creates hope.”
Hope is an incredibly deadly weapon against what Bartley called the monster of suicide, that convinced him, over time, that he was worthless, and that the lives of his friends and family would be better without him. These thoughts didn’t align with reality, he said, but because suicide is a passionate belief at its core, all the facts in the world don’t matter.
“The most selfless thing I could do was kill myself,” he said. “It’s not logical, but that’s what I believed.”
Bartley called suicide a malady of thoughts and feelings and talking about feelings has not traditionally been one of the Army’s strengths.
“This is a touchy-feely disease,” he said. “It overwhelms and heightens your feelings in the worst way. We have to talk about it in a touchy-feely way. Now, the Army is not really known for talking about feelings. I think one of the reasons there are so many suicides, and not just in the Army, is because we are not talking about how we feel. We don’t have to be touchy-feely to actually talk about our feelings and our emotions. But this is an emotion-based malady.”
Bartley said “connection, connection, connection” is the key to significantly reducing suicide, and at least one of the Soldiers in the audience agreed.
As a former executive officer with 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, and in her current operations role with the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Maj. Monica Rivera has interacted with her share of Soldiers and trainees. She said many individuals bring trauma with them when they join the Army and come to Fort Leonard Wood to begin their training, and she has spent a lot of time listening and connecting with them.
“We know what they’re about to experience (in Initial Entry Training), and if we don’t intake that information as they’re coming in and help them out, we’re failing them,” she said.
Events like this are important, Rivera said, because “we’re living in a period of the unknown.”
“There are a lot of external environmental things taking place that we are not conditioned for — we have the coronavirus that we’re just getting over, there is inflation — and I concur with him 100 percent,” she said. “Hope is what we need; that connection is what we need. Often times, we talk about the care aspect, but do we really know what care is? Care, like he said, is connecting, and we, sometimes, because we’re going 100 miles an hour, we forget to connect with people at that human level. Sometimes people just need an ear.”
At the end of his remarks, Bartley quoted Dr. Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist and author.
“Someone you see today is thinking about killing themselves,” he said. “Your smile, your question, your love could save them. Trust me. They told me it did.”
Anyone thinking about suicide is encouraged to call the General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital Behavioral Health Service Line at 573.596.0522, or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255), and press 1 for the Military Crisis Line, or text 8-3-8-2-5-5. Both are available 24/7. Additionally, Military OneSource can provide assistance finding help. They can be reached at 1.800.342.9647, or online at https://www.militaryonesource.mil.