By Story and photos by Sgt. Philip KleinJanuary 12, 2010
FORT CARSON, Colo. - Maj. Gen. David G. Perkins, commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division and Fort Carson, hosted a Suicide Prevention Forum at the Elkhorn Conference and Catering Center Sept 29.
Division and installation leaders, Department of Defense civilians, and regional topic experts gathered to discuss suicide prevention techniques and the effects self destructive behavior has on units and Family members.
Perkins opened the forum addressing the leaders on the importance of the day's event and emphasized the necessity for understanding the issues and building solutions.
"The Army by definition is charged with doing very difficult tasks, whether at home or abroad," said Perkins. "Our Soldiers have always stepped up and in the Army we have become very good at identifying tasks and dealing with them."
"Diagnosing the problem is the most difficult issue facing the Army -- what is the problem, and how do we diagnose it'" said Perkins.
"This is a challenge that is not going away," he said.
The Army provides Soldiers and leaders with a number of tools to end the epidemic, said Perkins.
Programs such as Military OneSource provide counseling to servicemembers and Families on a wide range of subjects, from behavioral health care to marriage and financial advice, to assist leaders in mitigating suicide within the ranks.
The Army's Ask Care Escort suicide intervention program and Fort Carson's innovated Mobile Behavioral Health Team, which provides greater access to care for brigade combat teams, are programs developed to confront the problem aggressively.
The problem of suicide does not stem from a lack of caring or effort, but a need to understand how to maximize assets and resources to assist leaders and Soldiers identify the symptoms, Perkins explained.
Keynote speaker, Dr. Thomas Joiner, Ph. D., the Bright-Burton Professor with the Florida State University Department of Psychology, outlined his thoughts on the underlining causes behind suicide.
Joiner, the author of the book, "Why People Die by Suicide" explained his theory on the causes that enable individuals to take this irreversible step as a solution to their problems.
"The causes behind suicide are extremely common, but the outcome is rare," said Joiner.
"Humans are hard wired for self preservation, and death by suicide means overcoming this wiring," continued Joiner. "How do people overcome that sense of self preservation'"
Joiner outlined three facts which he says are crucial to the development of suicide ideation.
First an individual must believe their life is a burden to those around them and that their death will be worth more than their life. Simultaneously they experience a sense of isolation, ostracism and alienation.
"If these two factors exist for long enough an individual might develop suicide ideation, which is very common, while the act itself is not," he said. "Lots of people have these thoughts at one time or another but very few carry them through to their tragic conclusion."
The final factor is a lack of the innate fear of death, said Joiner. Death is an inherent and daunting notion for individuals but they can develop a fearlessness of death through habituation, training and repeated exposure to traumatic events.
"Prostitutes, self-injecting drug users and physicians all have a higher baseline for death by suicide than some other socio-economic groups," said Joiner. "The reason for this is that they all share experiences with or witness violence, pain and/or death."
Joiner explained that through the process of habituation individuals overcome the natural desire for self preservation.
For servicemembers this lack of fear of death and experience with violence and pain is part of the training process and combat experience.
Kim Ruocca, a member of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, spoke about her personal experience with suicide and her knowledge of the stress military servicemembers deal with on a regular basis.
Ruocca, who lost her husband, a U.S. Marine Corps aviator, Maj. John Ruocca, to suicide in 2006, supports Joiner's theory of death by suicide, and related his observations to her personal experience.
Ruocca said that when her husband was a young man, prior to joining the Marines, he was involved in an auto accident that resulted in the death of another person. This spurred his decision to join the service.
During his career he also lost 12 members of his squadron during training operations, and these events revealed unresolved issues from the car accident.
"The stigma surrounding seeking help was too great a risk for him and he told me that if he sought help he would lose everything; his wings, his career as a Marine aviator, and his post-career goal as an airline pilot," said Ruocco. "As a spouse how could I make him seek help without feeling I betrayed him'"
Ruocca said her husband told her if he sought help things would change and he would never be looked upon as a leader again.
Ruocca continued explaining that her husband was a great Marine and always placed the needs of his fellow servicemembers before his own.
"He never cared for himself and he always carried with him the fear that he would let someone down, that he would let members of his squadron down," she said.
Ruocca said that when her husband deployed he believed he could be perfect; he focused on the mission, taking care of his Marines and his squadron.
When the aviator came home, James had to deal with his military career, his Family, and preparation for life after the service.
James decided the final solution was to end the burden he believed he was creating for his Family, she said.
"Soldiers and Marines are problem solvers, and when they think they are the problem they fix it," said Ruocca.
Joiner added that mental disorders should be viewed by leaders as serious medical conditions and treated accordingly.
"The military needs to adapt a zero tolerance policy to leaders who fail to take this seriously," said Ruocca.
The Army charges leaders to solve problems and to get the job done, and senior leaders tend to underestimate the influence junior leaders have on Soldiers' behavior, said Perkins.
"For Suicide Prevention Month, do something more than checking the box," said Perkins. "To have value added to this forum we have to take something of value out of this room."
Perkins concluded the event by encouraging leaders to get involved with their Soldiers and their junior leaders.
"Our leaders have come here today because we are in a position to make a difference," concluded Perkins. "We are all more powerful and effective when we utilize the resources available to us."