FORT POLK, La. -- It was a hot Iraq day Aug. 7, 2008 and it seemed like the walls were closing in on Spc. Joe Sanders.
His wife was leaving him, and he still had several months of deployment ahead. Sanders was deployed to Iraq with 5th Battalion, 25th Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, when he attempted suicide by turning his weapon on himself.
His battle buddy, Spc. Albert Godding, had seen the signs of Sanders' stress, and removed the firing pin from the rifle earlier that day. After the weapon misfired and Godding confronted his friend about the attempt, Sanders sought counseling and made it home alive.
Godding received a Meritorious Service Medal, April 27, for his actions. Godding is now in the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Brigade in Fort Carson, Colo., and was at Fort Polk for a pre-deployment rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center with his unit when he received the award.
When he talks about the incident, Sanders speaks with conviction. "Every day I wake up, I have to thank Godding," he said. "If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have gotten to experience my fiancAfAe. I wouldn't have gotten to lead troops, or attend schools and learn. Those are things I love to do."
Since redeploying in 2009, Sanders has attended the Warrior Leaders Course, been promoted to corporal, selected for marksmanship school, is still in the same battery, is leading troops and will deploy this year to Afghanistan with the 4-10. He has also gotten engaged and will get married this month.
Godding is nonchalant about the way he helped Sanders - to him, helping others is something everyone should do. "A lot of people crack jokes and call me hero, but if I ever see anybody who looks like they're feeling down, I talk to them just to make sure everything's OK," he said. "I'm not just trying to stop people from committing suicide, I'm trying to help them any way I can."
"It's been a long time since the event, and I didn't think I was going to get an award this big," Godding said. "I didn't need an award, I thought what I did was reward enough."
"Godding is circumspect about his role. He says it was just the right thing to do, but it is an illustration of the power that one person can have in another's life," said Lt. Col. Dennis Yates, senior fire support trainer/mentor at JRTC. Yates was the commander of 5-25 when the incident occurred.
"I see unlimited potential for both Soldiers," said Yates. "They're both great Soldiers. Sanders has big plans - no matter what he sets his mind to, he'll do well. This experience is going to help form both of them long-term. The taste of success will be that much sweeter for Sanders from here on out because of what his friend did for him."
Despite his carefree manner, Godding realizes the seriousness of suicide and Sanders' actions. "It made me realize that suicide is real," he said. "Sanders is not the type of Soldier who would do that. It could happen to anybody."
Sanders has advice for people who know someone at risk for suicide: "Friends and supervisors who notice changes in behavior should address it," he said. "It doesn't hurt to ask how a person is feeling."
Neither should Soldiers be timid about getting help. "Don't be afraid to get help, even if you have to take a battle buddy with you," Sanders continued. "It made me feel a thousand times better when I was able to talk to someone about my trouble. Don't be afraid about what people will think about you, either. I did not hear any negativity in my unit about being a weak Soldier. If anything, I was a lot stronger for going to get help."
The climate in 5-25 seems to have been an important factor in the outcome of Sanders' situation. "Commanders have to constantly ask themselves 'am I creating the type of environment that encourages leaders and Soldiers to take care of each other''" said Yates.
"Not only did Sanders have a battle buddy who was on the ball, but he had a platoon leader and platoon sergeant who understood what was going on in their Soldiers' lives." Sanders happened to be on the forward operating base with Godding because his platoon leadership saw him struggling and sent him back for counseling. "It was a stroke of luck that Godding happened to be on the FOB at the same time," Yates said. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about it - it was that significant."
Fortuitously, Army culture has shifted from the old model where Soldiers were expected to 'tough it out' - where seeking help was a sign of weakness. "As we become more experienced we get a more mature view of what it means to be tough and temper it with compassion," said Yates. "There is still a stigma among family members that they can't let their units know about their problems. That's nonsense. No one will look down on you for coming forward. It was a big challenge for me to convince the spouses that they don't have to suffer in silence."
Godding addressed the other difficulty of dealing with suicide. "It's hard sometimes to ask your friend about how they feel because you don't want to intrude," he said. "When you spend time with your battle buddies during field training or JRTC rotations, you know when something's off and they're not acting right. It doesn't hurt to ask if they are OK and invite them to talk about it."
"Because we deploy so often, Soldiers are losing their friends and wives," said Sanders. "It's not uncommon to feel the way I did. Because more people are experiencing this, it's not such a taboo subject."
Sanders is preparing for a deployment with 4-10 this year, and hopes to pass the help along to the Soldiers he now leads. "I have more experience now," he said. "I know what to expect and talked to my fiancAfAe about it. She's from a military family, so she knows about deployments. I got lucky in that respect."
Sanders said being away from family and friends is often the hardest part of a deployment. "Fighting doesn't bother Soldiers, we do that all day long. What gets to us is being away from our loved ones. It will be tough, but I'm ready. I know what my Soldiers are going through. I will be able to help them cope."
There are many resources available for Soldiers and family members who are dealing with depression, post traumatic stress disorder and other problems. Talk to your chain of command, unit chaplain or visit Army Community Service. Military One Source is a free service and can be reached at (800) 342-9647 or www.militaryonesource.com.
Help is only a phone call away.