CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – A 2021 study found that 30,177 active-duty service members and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 have died by suicide; compared to the 7,057 Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors killed in combat in those same 20 years.
Suicide is now the second leading cause of death amongst U.S. service members, a staggering epidemic senior leaders across the military hope to change through education and development of intervention skills across the ranks.
On Sept. 16, 2022, senior leaders from across the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 29th Infantry Division, Virginia and Kentucky National Guard, gathered at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo for a suicide prevention and awareness seminar to discuss ways leaders can play a pivotal role in preventing suicide in the military and veteran communities.
“Senior Army leaders are asking us to be proactive and come up with creative solutions because the Army does have a suicide problem,” said Lt. Col. Brian M. Gallavan, the brigade’s executive officer. “If there’s one thing I think leaders walked away with today is that we’re not just a team; we’re a family. We care for each other and are sincerely concerned about suicides in the Army, and in the military.”
The brigade, currently deployed in support of Operation Joint Guardian as the Kosovo Force Regional Command East headquarters, is set to redeploy back home in the coming weeks, a time of transition when suicide risks are likely to increase.
During the seminar, Col. Christopher J. Samulski, the brigade’s commander, discussed his thoughts on suicide in the military and his priorities for leaders to understand what their Soldiers are going through, and to be a part of the solution. Also speaking at the event was Maj. Brian R. Harvey, the brigade chaplain, who discussed his experience attempting suicide as a young noncommissioned officer, and Capt. SarahLouise Perez, the behavioral health chief for the 547th Medical Company (Area Support), 62nd Medical Brigade.
“I thought (the seminar) was outstanding,” said 1st. Sgt. Jerry Fink, the senior enlisted leader of Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 29th Combat Aviation Brigade, 29th Inf. Div. “The fact that we’re trying to be proactive for suicide prevention instead of being quiet about it all the time, I think this will help bring it out in the open and hopefully, stop that next person from taking that step.”
As part of a new initiative to add a protective factor against suicide for Soldiers, seminar organizers introduced memorial bracelets to be handed out to service members across the brigade. Each bracelet contains the name of a service member, the operation, and the date they were killed in action. Additionally, included on the back of the bracelet is the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The idea behind the bracelet is to help Soldiers who may be feeling depressed or having thoughts of suicide to remember those who came before them and who were killed in the service of their country. Brigade leaders hope by looking at that name on their wrist, Soldiers choose to honor them by continuing to live.
“If we can provide these bracelets to our Soldiers, they can refer to those bracelets and know that those are Soldiers who died performing their duty for their country,” Gallavan said. “Our Soldiers can pick up that torch and carry it when they look down at those (names) for inspiration. I think it’s a (great) cause.”
Fink said the idea behind the bracelets is new and interesting, something he’s never seen in his 35 years of military service. Though he’s hopeful this type of outside-the-box thinking will be successful in helping curb suicide in the military.
“It will be interesting to see how it works,” Fink said. “The thought that if somebody was thinking about maybe harming themselves and they think more about the person they’re carrying on for instead of harming themselves as an extra layer of protection is something I haven’t seen.”
At the conclusion of the seminar, 1st. Lt. Kyle S. Rash and Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth D. Eisenhart, the event organizers, introduced the “Out of the Darkness” suicide prevention and memorial board, a board that will reside at the Camp Bondsteel dining facility throughout Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Service members will have the opportunity to place the names of suicide victims on the board to memorialize them while reflecting on the impact of suicide throughout the military and veteran community.
“We’re a team; whether it’s the Army values, whether it’s the ‘not in my squad’ program, whether it’s the hardships that we share, we’re a team and we care about each other,” Gallavan said. For those who are struggling, “go to your battle buddy and ask for help. We’re here to help. Let’s get through these tough times together.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, seek help immediately by dialing 988 in the U.S. to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For more resources, visit https://www.health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Total-Force-Fitness/Psychological-Fitness/Suicide-Prevention.