Soldiers Have Suicide Standdown
The soldiers formed a loose circle in the shade, some sitting back against tall pine trees, and talked about life.
Across Fort Bragg -- and across the Army -- similar scenes played out Thursday as soldiers broke from their normal duties for a day to focus on preventing suicides.
"Hunt the good stuff," Sgt. 1st Class Michael Goodson, who is assigned to the 18th Fires Brigade, told the men around him. "What's something you can be happy about today?"
Maybe your favorite team won last night, maybe you have a baby, or maybe you paid off your car loan. When life's problems seem overwhelming, Goodson said, hunt the good stuff.
Suicides have plagued the military recently. This year, they have taken more lives than combat in Afghanistan despite the Defense Department's commitment of more than $110 million toward suicide prevention since 2008.
Figures released Thursday by the Army show another potential 16 suicides last month, bringing the total of suspected active-duty Army suicides this year to 131. Another 80 deaths in the Guard and Reserve are suspected suicides.
Fort Bragg has not been immune to the problem. On Tuesday evening, a special operations soldier killed himself at his home in Fayetteville, bringing the total of suspected suicides by Fort Bragg soldiers this year to 15. A special operations spokesman at Fort Bragg said the name of the soldier won't be released until the unit has confirmed that his family has been notified.
The 18th Fires Brigade invited reporters to attend its suicide prevention meetings Thursday.
The goal of the training, brigade commander Col. Robert D. Morschauser said, was teaching soldiers to better identify the signs of problems in their battle buddies, making sure they understand where they can turn for help, and getting across the message that there's nothing wrong with seeing a counselor.
Many studies say the embarrassment of seeking help keeps many soldiers from getting the treatment they need until it's too late.
New lieutenants go through a two-day training course dealing with suicide prevention and other mental health issues before they take command.
Nick Black, a veteran and co-founder of the nonprofit group Stop Soldier Suicide, met with 18th Fires Brigade command groups to make sure they know that civilian services are available free and outside the chain of command.
Black praised the Army's suicide prevention efforts and said it's baffling that suicides continue to rise. Suicide is a tough problem to solve because it can happen to anyone, Black said, regardless of rank, age or combat experience.
"I hope it gets better, but with the numbers leaving the military, we're at a critical point," Black said. "We need to stop it now."
The Army's decision to stop focusing on other missions for a day to talk about suicide prevention -- its second such day in the past three years -- shows an improvement in the military's perception of suicide, said 1st Sgt. Demetrius Johnson.
Eighteen years ago, when Johnson enlisted, a day like Thursday would have been unimaginable.
"It probably would've been looked down on like, 'They're weak individuals' or 'That's stupid,' " Johnson said.
Johnson said soldiers are the most important weapon in the Army, and just like a rifle, they need maintenance.
Sgt. Steve Witczak said he recently noticed that one of his soldiers had started mentally checking out at work. Witczak pulled the soldier aside and asked him what was wrong. The soldier had a baby back home he wasn't seeing very often. Witczak said he encouraged the young soldier and helped him manage his money so he'd be able to visit home more often.
That soldier may not have been on the brink of suicide, Witczak said, but it's best to offer help before problems escalate.
"It's the Army, so everyone wants to appear strong," Witczak said, but the signs of problems can be easy to spot if soldiers pay attention. "The big thing, honestly, is get to know your soldiers."