Early this month, the Adjutant General for Oklahoma, Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, brought all of his senior commanders and many other senior leaders together at the Oklahoma National Guard's Regional Training Institute to meet with behavioral health specialists. The topic of the meeting was combating Soldier suicide and Deering made sure that all in attendance knew that preventing suicide is one of his top priorities.
Some six months after the return of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) from Afghanistan, Guard officials are dealing with the reality that local Guardsmen are almost as likely to die by their own hand as they are from enemy contact. Since 9/11, 19 Oklahoma Citizen-Soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, but during the same period another 16 committed suicide, including nine in the past two years.
“I want you (commanders) to know how intent I am on finding a solution that will help us solve this problem. You are going to get everything I've got,” Deering told about 80 top military officials. “I need you to help me get out front as leaders because I can't touch all 10,000 Soldiers and Airmen. We have to work together to come up with answers that will help these young people.”
Fourteen Oklahoma Army National Guard Soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice over a three month period last year while serving their country in Afghanistan with the 45th IBCT. Between late July and early November 2011, the 45th was repeatedly engaged by well-armed insurgents in the most desolate places in eastern Afghanistan. And, on multiple occasions, if the Oklahoma Soldiers didn't find the enemy, the enemy found them and detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs). During this period, the 45th engaged in its toughest fighting since the Korean War.
Some Oklahoma Army National Guardsmen have found it difficult to put the war in Afghanistan behind them.
But, the war alone doesn't seem to be the reason for the rising number of suicides. Five of the nine Soldiers that killed themselves in the last two years had never deployed. However, there were similarities in some of the recent deaths of Oklahoma Guardsmen. All nine were male and many of them had been drinking alcohol shortly before they died. They were all either Caucasian or Native American. The majority shot themselves and the others died by hanging. Subsequent investigations indicated that almost all of them were dealing with problems in relationships.
David Harris with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services told the military brass that they need to convey to their Soldiers and Airmen “how it's okay to ask for help, how it's okay to talk about depression, how it's okay to talk about mental illness - a true warrior can surrender when he needs to ask for help.” Harris went on to explain that leaders in the room need to create an environment where people are encouraged to reach out when they are struggling.
Dr. Bryan Stice, a psychologist and suicide prevention case manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs, suggested a three-tiered approach. First, you reduce the stigma and encourage individuals to reach out for help. Second, you target those Soldiers that are high risk, that are known to have suffered from traumatic brain injury or have been diagnosed with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). And finally, you have to have effective policies and procedures in place for folks that are known to be suicidal.
The Oklahoma National Guard's approach to combating suicide is continuing to be refined and additional emphasis is being placed on preventing it.
“I look at this as a preventable loss of life,” said Brig. Gen. Emery Fountain, special assistant to the Director of the Army National Guard. While admitting there are a lot of good programs in place, he encouraged the leaders to go well beyond implementing effective programs and place a priority on staying better connected with their Soldiers.
By the end of this month, nearly all Oklahoma Army National Guard Soldiers will have gone through mandatory suicide prevention and resiliency training. The training is designed to help them identify and cope with situations that have led some Soldiers to commit suicide. In addition to providing tools that are meant to help the individual, it's designed to train Soldiers on how to help one another.
“The Guard's commitment to the health and well-being of our Soldiers, Airmen and their families is unwavering,” said Lt. Col. Max Moss, an Oklahoma Guard spokesman. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. When a Soldier takes his own life it's devastating to not only the Soldier's family, but also for the men and women that served with the Soldier.”
Confidential help for Veterans and their families is available by calling the Veterans Crisis Line (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) at 1-800-273-8255, then press one.