Over the weekend, I received a beautiful letter from an Army Family that dealt with a difficult theme -- suicide. Seven year old, John Murray Jr. did not know what the word "suicide" meant and he implored his mother for an explanation. Not surprisingly, Ingrid Murray was reluctant to engage in this conversation but she mustered the strength to do just that.
The details are contained in her letter below:
"We were in the waiting room at Fox Army Health Center at Redstone Arsenal (AL) waiting to pick up a prescription. My son, John Jr., is in second grade and we use every opportunity to work on his reading. We were playing a game where he reads as many words from posters and flyers as he could see in the waiting room. We were walking by a display and John Jr. stopped and looked at it and asked me "Mama what is that word?" A huge lump formed in my throat. It was a display for Army Suicide Prevention. "Mama, I know the words Army and prevention but not the "s" word. What does it say?" He looked up at me and then tugged my arm. Mama did you hear me? I don't know that "s" word."
I was silent at first. That "s" word...suicide. I was about to reply "Oh, it's about Army things for Soldiers." and pull him away from the display and walk away as fast as I could. But then it hit me...the Army wants us to talk about it. Me, you, not just Soldiers but everyone in the Army family: spouses, Soldiers, co-workers, EVERYONE need to talk about it.
In my husband's unit (Army Contracting Command) Maj. Gen. Camille Nichols had even given a heartfelt message about suicide prevention…to simply talk to your Soldier, Family members, and reach out. Save a life! Even my husband tells me that before he walks out the door every day, he looks in the mirror and that you "check yourself as a Soldier and check your Soldiers."
So with these thought in mind I kneeled down, took a very deep breath and explained to John Jr. that the poster said Army Suicide Prevention. The "s" word was suicide. John Jr. asked, "What is suicide?" I swallowed and prayed I was using the right words and wishing I had a degree in psychology right about then. So I began to explain.
"John Jr., remember when Daddy went to Walter Reed, when his eye was hurt?"
John Jr. replied,"Yeah, his face was kind of black and yellow and you couldn't see his eyeballs and he was sewn up on his face. Like a monster but he wasn't because he was Daddy?"
"Yes," I continued, "Remember, we saw lots of other Soldiers with injuries? Some Soldiers with missing arms, legs, and some Soldiers had burns?" John Jr. nodded. I went on, "Sometimes people are hurt and you can't see the injury. They may have arms, and legs, no marks or bruises but they are still hurt. Inside their head they are really sad and hurt. Sometimes they are so sad and hurt they end their lives. They end their life on purpose. That is what suicide means."
"They wanted to be dead?" John Jr. asked solemnly.
"Yes.", I replied with a big lump in my throat.
"Mama, dead is forever." John Jr. stated.
"But Mama, why don't they just go to the doctor and get better like Daddy did with his eyeball?"
Well, I explained that sometimes it is hard to ask for help. When you see someone bleeding or fall down you know they need help. You know you need to get them to a doctor. Like when Daddy was hurt someone took him straight to the hospital to see a doctor. But when you can't see any injuries like blood or scratches on the outside of a person, you may think everything is OK. People may be really sad on the inside and want to end their life. That person may feel that if there is no blood or injuries that people can see, if they ask for help, that someone may laugh at them, point at them, or say they are weak.
John Jr. was silent and then replied. "Ms. Fletcher in Guidance at school (Endeavor Elementary) says that you are supposed to ask for help. That we are supposed to help not hurt each other. Like, if you can't tie your shoe, you ask a friend to help. That is part of being a good citizen and friend."
I explained that some people may laugh at people who can't tie their shoe and have to ask for help to tie their shoe. John Jr. looked at me and then said, "Well Daddy says that Army people are helpers and if you are a helper you don't laugh, you just help. Especially if you are an Army person you want to help other Army people. "
John Jr. then said, "Mama, I know what to do." He asked me for 4 sticky notes from my purse and a pen. I gave them to him. He kneeled down next to a table and I watched him as he began to write one big word at a time on each sticky note ASK...... FOR..... HELP !!! He then stuck the notes on the table. "Mama, you know how you have sticky notes to write down important things. Things that are the most really super important?"
"Yes." I replied.
"Well, I wrote a reminder for Army people to ask for help and did five exclamation points because it is real important. My teacher, Ms. Hardiman, said an exclamation point is like yelling a sentence. I put five exclamation points so it would be really loud. Maybe the Army person who is hurt just forgot to ask for help. This will help remind them." John Jr. stood up and put the remaining sticky notes and pen back in my purse.
John Jr. then said, "Mama, they called our number. The medicine is ready." We got up and walked to the pharmacy window to pick up the prescription.
Tears formed in my eyes as we walked off. I looked back at the table and saw the four green sticky notes in childish handwriting that proclaimed "ASK FOR HELP!!" and all I could think of was "Yes, please ask for help. Your life does matter, even if you think it does not. It does. Just ask a little 7 year old Army kid at Redstone Arsenal and he will tell you. He took the time to leave you a message right on the table in the pharmacy waiting room for you to see. ASK FOR HELP!!!!!"
Proud Military Spouse
Suicide is a challenging topic to discuss even with a mature audience; let alone with an intellectually curious and compassionate child. The silence can be deafening and it reinforces a cultural message that says, "suicide is a deep, dark, unspoken topic". In the absence of open dialogue- myths prevail and inappropriate judgments are made.
Championing the discussion in the manner the Murray Family did is a lesson for all of us. It is my expressed wish that all military Families engage in this important discussion and possess the wisdom of John Jr.
Patricia D. Horoho
Lt. Gen. U.S. Army
The Surgeon General & CG, USAMEDCOM
"Serving to Heal…Honored to Serve"