By Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs DetachmentOctober 1, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- After more than 20 years in the medical field, Lt. Col. Marvin Emerson understands the value of a first responder.
He also understands that whether a situation concerns life or death, or simply helping a stranger change a flat tire, the first people to come along can only help if they know how.
The story is the same whenever a Soldier considers suicide.
"If you're going to be that first responder, it's important for you to know, 'where do I take him (a suicidal Soldier)? What do I do?' " said Emerson, chief of medical operations for I Corps. "A lot of times, what stops people cold is they don't know what to do.
"If you don't know how to fix a flat tire, how do you help that old lady who has a flat tire on the side of the highway?"
The sentiment served as the motivation driving a weeklong event Sept. 24 to 28 the Army is calling a terrain walk that Emerson helped organize on the installation to raise awareness of the resources available to help Soldiers in times of need.
During the walk, more than 4,000 Soldiers were charged with visiting booths set up by a variety of facilities -- services designed to reduce stressors that, if left to stew for long enough, could possibly lead to suicide.
With participants from private to colonel, groups small and large passed through and received information from sources like Madigan Healthcare System's behavioral health clinic, which offers counseling for Soldiers facing mental and emotional adversity on a walk-in basis.
"One of the primary purposes was just to allow Soldiers access to the resources that directly attack the stressors or factors that affect suicide ideations," Emerson said. "It's about intervening early. It's about getting at those risk factors that lead to a suicide attempt."
Emerson and the installation's suicide prevention program manager, Vicki Duffy, coordinated the walk in conjunction with Army Suicide Prevention Week 2012. This year, Emerson said, the Army put its focus on the topic of awareness.
Soldiers picked up much more than just awareness with the walk, however. They gained a comfort in seeking help when it's needed most.
"A lot of times, people are scared of the unknown," said Duffy, who, for the past few years has worked to reduce the likelihood of suicides in military communities. "There's a lot of fear of, 'well, I don't know what to expect when I get there. I don't know what it's going to look like.' "
Duffy said Soldiers typically associate a negative perception with visiting services for financial help, legal assistance or any other aid with their personal affairs. She explained that they often assume they'll be tagged as troubled or weak, and that their peers will think less of them after the fact.
The terrain walk gave them warm personalities and kind, smiling faces to connect with the facilities instead. It gave them a sense of normalcy.
"It gave them the vision that these are just normal buildings on the installation, and the people who work here are really cool people who care about us," Duffy said. "You don't come in and they give you a red vest and say, 'OK, now you have the scarlet letter because you came into the finance office.'
"It humanizes the offices. It's not the finance building; it's Arnie over at finance. And he's really cool."
And Sgt. Carlos Estrada felt that.
"Having the people here, talking friendly and openly -- I think that breaks down the barriers a lot," said Estrada, assigned to the 51st Signal Battalion (Expeditionary), 35th Signal Brigade.
"This isn't somebody that's just going to be sitting behind a desk jotting down notes as you talk to them; these are people that are actually here to put their time, their effort and everything that they have into helping you out."
Estrada, who is contemplating whether to stay in the Army or try his hand at the private sector within the next 18 months, talked with a representative from the base's Army Career and Alumni Program, which helps ease the transition from Soldier to civilian.
Though it took misfortunate events to give him the real world experience, Estrada knows that anyone could end up being the last line of support to a Soldier with thoughts of suicide.
"I've personally talked three of my friends out of suicide, so I realize the importance of just having that one person there to say, 'hey, what's wrong,' and then when they say, 'oh, no, nothing,' just keep digging and go, 'no, no, tell me, really,' " he said.
It's a reality that over time Duffy has developed her own way of looking at.
"It's like a pressure cooker, and sometimes you just need to push the button and let a little bit of the steam out," she said. "You just need an outlet -- somebody who can help you push that button."
Duffy said that while there's no denying a stigma exists among Soldiers toward getting help, whether it's with finances or emotional stress, a great deal of them already have.
Over the last 90 days, she said, five percent of the 42,000 Soldiers on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., have busted the stigma and sought help from behavioral health specialists.
"I think that's fantastic data," Duffy said. "How better to dispel the myth and stigma than to say, 'it's us. It's not those people; it's not those kinds of Soldiers. It's Soldiers in general.' "