By W. Wayne MarlowOctober 1, 2012
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL - In 2011, 283 Soldiers took their lives. In the continuing effort to combat suicide in its ranks, our Army has mandated a Service wide Stand Down day. In support of the mandate, First Army is holding its Stand Down Day Oct. 4 on Rock Island Arsenal.
The Stand Down Days, themed "Shoulder to Shoulder, We Stand Up For Life," provide senior Army leaders the opportunity to educate our teammates about suicide, while bringing heightened awareness to a social issue the Army is not immune to.
Stand Down events are intended to increase resiliency and build awareness within the Army ranks and focus on suicide risk factors, identifying teammates in crisis and what programs are available to assist those Soldiers, Family members or Department of the Army Civilians in crisis.
Our Army's Warrior Ethos reads in part, "I shall never leave a fallen comrade," and that principle dictates that leaders do everything possible to minimize risks their Soldiers and their Families face. During the Stand Down Day, suicide risks and the challenges Soldiers face are addressed.
Defeating Soldier suicide requires involvement from every Soldier, leader, Family member, and Army Civilian, according to Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, First Army commander.
"We are a problem solving organization. The Army demonstrates its support and care for its Soldiers and Families by providing resources that can help mitigate the risk of suicidal behavior," Bednarek said. "While the available resources are vital to saving lives, a despondent Soldier may not seek help. That is why we train our leaders and Soldiers to look for signs of suicidal ideations. If this happens, a unit watch plan ensures the Soldier is assisted, and provided the necessary support."
The Army has developed tools such as ASIST, or Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. According to Chaplain (Col.) Kevin T. Wilkinson, Reserve Component chaplain training integrator for First Army, ASIST "is intended to heighten awareness and embolden the actions necessary to prevent a suicide."
Wilkinson added that the Army focuses on leaders knowing their Soldiers, and Soldiers knowing their peers
"It starts with buddy care, peer counseling, and encouragement," he said. "Within an organization, there are general and specific kinds of help, to include supervisory overwatch at every leadership level. Within the units of assignment, there will be ASIST-trained gatekeepers, Soldier-leaders who know their fellow Soldiers well, and are in the best position to observe deviations from baseline attitudes and behaviors."
While first-line supervisors and peers are usually the first line of defense against suicide, there are other key tools in the fight.
"There are resources available through medical staff personnel, unit ministry teams, substance abuse and behavioral health professionals and counselors, and organizations such as Army Community Services at each military installation whose mission is to support our Army teammates in crisis," Wilkinson said. "At the Department of the Army level, there is a suicide prevention program manager who is tasked with the responsibility to maintain constant vigilance of the status of programs, products and policies, subjecting them to continued scrutiny in order to review, refine, and release the best, most up-to-date products."
On Rock Island Arsenal, First Army's Stand Down Day will include a presentation by Vietnam War veteran John Muskgrave, who will share a story about his struggles with suicidal thoughts.
"He has a compelling testimony about being so despondent, then finding his way through. He has an engaging story," said Lt. Col. Kevin Hyde, First Army safety officer.
Hyde said First Army's program will also include small group discussions and resilience training. To augment this, Hyde added, all first-line supervisors will receive a four-hour block of instruction during the year, while all chaplains attend a two-day course on suicide prevention.
"First Army has done and is doing everything possible to reduce the suicides at every level of our organization, here at the headquarters, down through the divisions to the brigades and battalions," Wilkinson said. "It is a continuous effort to keep at the top of our consciousness the importance of every life. Annually, we provide required awareness and prevention briefings and training for Soldiers, Families, and Civilians. We observe Suicide Prevention Month in September with a balanced measure of training, literature distribution, and posters, all with the constant reminder that people prevent suicides."
The holistic approach is paying dividends and the Safety Stand Down Day aims to continue that momentum.
"The First Army safety team, along with the chaplains, have planned a robust set of suicide prevention activities for our Safety Stand Down," Wilkinson sad. "We're not just checking the block, but endeavoring to provide that extra, incremental measure of encouragement, information, insight that can make the critical difference."
Staying abreast of changes in suicide prevention is crucial, Wilkinson added.
"Review of the basics is necessary, but even more necessary is exposure to the advances in thinking about prevention, and intervention. Advance in knowledge can and does have the effect of setting up a moment in which the Soldier, Family, or Civilian says to themselves, 'Wow, I never saw that,' or 'I didn't consider that before.'"
Wilkinson further noted that while education is essential, the most important aspect in suicide prevention is often compassion.
"I had the opportunity to work at the Department of Defense level with suicide prevention managers from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines," he said. "The chief psychologist said, 'When you are genuine, transparently compassionate and caring, your actions will make the difference in the life of another. Above all, authentic, caring efforts are going to make the difference.'"
In the past month, there have also been Stand Down Days at First Army Division East Headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., and at Division West Headquarters at Fort Hood, Texas.
At Division West, the Stand Down Day program included testimonials from a Family member of a suicide victim, as well as suicide prevention techniques from health care professionals and chaplains. One of the more powerful techniques was role playing, conducted at small unit levels. Soldiers acted out what to do if faced with someone who is contemplating suicide. Division East conducted similar training, including playing the video "Shoulder to Shoulder" and one by military supporter Gary Sinese.
"Here at Fort Hood, we have done similar Stand Down Days on a quarterly basis," said Capt. James Dunkley, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, First Army Division West. "They are not briefs, they are discussions. We only use slides to highlight some topics of discussion and then we open it up for all personnel to discuss so we can work to identify the problem and, most importantly, find ways to address and resolve the issue."
The Stand Down Day is another way that First Army is working on several fronts to help Soldiers and their Families deal with challenges.
"This command strives at every level to maintain a climate of sincere concern for Soldiers, the civilians we depend on, and the Families we go home to at the end of the day," Wilkinson said. "We are making the difference.'"
Our Soldiers, Family members and Department of the Army Civilian teammates who might be struggling with suicide can seek additional assistance by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647.