CAMP HUMPHREYS, Republic of Korea - *Part two of a three-part series on Capt. Anthony Priest, with 1st Signal Brigade, and how he faced multiple suicide situations on his road to becoming a behavior health officer.*
Captain Anthony Priest slowly sat up in his chair, sharply exhaling as he continued his story.
“I was at Fort Campbell doing my social work internship when one of my fellow social worker interns ended her life by suicide,” said Priest.
Priest, behavior health officer with 1st Signal Brigade, said he wished they all could have picked on the warning signs, but he understood how she must have felt. There were moments in his own life when his light was dimmed and his path was dark. He spent a lot of his time supporting others to live and knew people cared about him but still wondered if life would be better without him.
“I probably would have been one of those people who everyone would say, ‘we never saw it coming, we don’t understand. He's optimistic, he’s happy, he’s joyful, he’s caring,’” said Priest. “With my experience, I had to realize the impact it would have on others and know that my life is truly worth living.”
He said it was then a light clicked on in his head - Priest realized his life was worth living. While stationed at Fort Campbell, Tenn., he was presented with the opportunity to work with Bob Regan, a Grammy and Dove Award nominated songwriter. Regan realized he could use music to help rehabilitate Soldiers, some with significant combat history, by taking their stories and turning them into songs - he created “Operation Song.”
Regan made his way to Fort Campbell with fellow country musicians to work with the Soldiers in rehab. Priest ended up taking the last vacant slot. Regan never worked with a behavioral health provider and chose Priest, who began to tell Regan his story of brokenness, loss, and minor successes.
“When I was done, he was like, ‘wow, there are so many different options we can talk about, like all these different painful things you have been through in your life,’” said Priest. “I said, ‘yeah, but I don’t want to talk about those things. I want to use this platform [...] this opportunity, to write a song to inspire people who do feel like their life is at the end, that there is nothing out there for them or they don’t see hope, to be able to reconsider.’”
After two hours of brainstorming the pair began working on the song, “What if You Didn’t.”
“We were both highly inspired by the topic and the lyrics at hand,” said Priest. “That’s kind of where the song came from and we were able to use it for the Light Up the Night event back at Campbell.”
Light Up the Night is an event created by Priest to celebrate life. Priest said a lot of people have wondered, “what’s the point to life?” or have had really intense questions or thoughts about suicide. Priest said the biggest way to get rid of someone feeling like a burden is to normalize the topic of people having rough days, months and years.
Priest said in the military focus is put on suicide intervention and “ACE,” a way the Army trains its Soldiers to handle suicide situations (ACE stands for Ask. Care. Escort.). However, suicide prevention lacks the same priority from the military. Priest wanted to create a safe space for people impacted by suicide.
Priest’s goal was to create a space where individuals would be surrounded by others who have been in similar situations, whether that be suicidal themselves, thoughts of suicide, or as those who have been impacted by another who has committed suicide. This would be a place to heal, grow and know they are not alone. A space that even in their darkest hour there would be a little light. Light Up the Night would provide that light.
“In Fort Campbell, we are near Nashville, Tenn., and so music is a big part of that community and that culture,” said Priest. “I was able to get in contact with some of their musicians who were willing to come play and then I lined up some guest speakers. [...] Light up the Night just kind of fell into place at that point.”
Besides having country musicians, Priest invited guest speakers who shared their stories of hope and life to the audience. There were outside behavioral health specialists and resource tables for anyone who might need someone to talk to. Additionally, the event included a candlelight vigil to reflect on those impacted directly or indirectly by the product of suicide or by a suicidal attempt.
Priest said the event at Fort Campbell was successful
Unfortunately, it would be the last one he’d see.
Return tomorrow for the conclusion of our three-part series.