By Mr. Lorin Smith (I Corps)September 25, 2009
MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER- Chap. (Lt. Col.) Peter Brzezinski typically finds that 75 percent of the staff members briefed at the Madigan Army Medical Center New Employee Orientation knows someone who has committed suicide within the past five years. As a Presbyterian chaplain trained in helping people of all faiths on their spiritual journey through life, he knows that suicide is a "permanent solution to a temporary problem," as he calls it, and doesn't affect just those wearing the uniform. "Suicide in the military is more visible and noticeable because we are in a closed setting," said Brzezinski, chief of Madigan's Ministry and Pastoral Care. "The military is just a small microcosm of the epidemic occurring in society."
Stopping the suicide crisis drives the Ministry and Pastoral Care chaplains assigned to Madigan. Multiple deployments, break-ups, and death are just a few of the stresses that can lead Soldiers, retirees, Family members, Department of the Army civilians, or contractors - anyone with a tie to the military - to have suicidal thoughts. When someone commits suicide, it doesn't just affect close Family and friends, but the larger community as a whole. This is why Brzezinski, a Presbyterian chaplain, believes his job, his calling, is to communicate and educate everyone about suicide through the words of religion. "We encourage people on their journey to go from being broke and hurting to hope and healing," he said. "Those with some type of faith heal quicker, have better outcomes, and we can bolster that aspect of their well-being in helping them recover."
While most people know about unit chaplains, hospital chaplains, who are professionally known as chaplain clinicians, have a slightly different mission. Madigan's eight chaplains (three staff and five residents) deliver religious services at lunchtime in the hospital chapel and provide the benediction at command-sponsored events like all chaplains do. But they differ from other clergy in that they may also be asked to perform the Last Rites on a Catholic patient whose life is ending, work with inmates at the Fort Lewis Regional Confinement Facility, or guide a group therapy session with service members who may have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, thought about suicide or actually attempted to kill themselves, as part of Madigan's Intensive Outpatient Program, part of the Department of Psychiatry.
Hospital chaplains will spend a year as residents learning the medical terminology and culture of the multi-disciplinary medical world to backfill their already extensive knowledge of the spiritual world and its lingo. "We spend time on the floors, wards, Emergency Department - the whole hospital - dealing with the traumas and issues that go on every day, every hour," Brzezinski said.
When Noncommissioned officers or battle buddies bring their comrades to Madigan to get them help for suicidal ideation, that person will probably be checked into the Inpatient Psychiatry Unit located in the Nursing Tower. Or, a provider will make a referral to the Department of Social Work, which may direct the person to the psychiatric ward. Once receiving holistic treatment at the Inpatient Psychiatry Unit, they could see a chaplain resident like Chap. (Maj.) Ron Cooper, who just finished up a two-week rotation assisting Soldiers, both individually and in groups, in their understanding of the importance of life and faith. "When it comes to suicide, many people who have ideations have lost hope, lost heart, lost the desire to look forward and can't see their strengths anymore and aren't clear on those connections they have to life," Cooper said. "The patients I have seen begin to reconnect to the things that worked for them in the past, and I give them the boost they need. As they begin to see all the things working for them, they reconnect to their spiritual life, reconnect to God, and get back the hope they need in their faith tradition."
Madigan, Fort Lewis and senior Army leadership have spent the past few years developing ways to reduce the stigma Soldiers associate with receiving behavioral health therapy, and Cooper, who is of the Protestant faith, said that that "Care with Compassion" is exactly what is needed to help combat suicide. "It is so important that Soldiers know it is ok to talk to someone, especially since they have been through events that the average citizen will never experience," he said. "We need to help them through this difficult time - it feels like a waterfall, but chances are, it's just rapids, and those rapids will smooth out into something more manageable down the road."
Both Brzezinski and Cooper talked up the significance for everyone to understand the ACE program, which is a simple acronym tool to remember what can help save a person's life who may be contemplating suicide.
Ask your buddy - have the courage to ask the question, but stay calm. Ask the question directly - Are you thinking of killing yourself'
Care for your buddy - Remove any means that could be used for self-injury. Calmly control the situation; do not use force. Actively listen to produce relief.
Escort your buddy - Never leave your buddy alone. Escort to the chain of command, a chaplain, a behavioral health professional, or a primary care provider.
"The Army has put a lot of time, money and effort into this practical, hands-on approach to assisting someone that is struggling with suicidal ideation problems," Brzezinski said.
Losing a Soldier doesn't have to happen, and Cooper wants specifically Soldiers to know that no matter how low they may be feeling, to be a Soldier means you are a top performer. "Because they are facing this moment doesn't mean they aren't great - you are the one people can count on," he said. "It's like if you have a broken ankle, you get the ankle set and fixed - the same premise works spiritually."