(See a video tribute for one of my Soldiers below.)
The title of this post came on a typical busy day. I happened to be in my office, which isn't often the case, scrambling to tend to the crisis of the moment. My Command Sergeant Major (CSM) had just been in my office a few minutes before while we tackled another problem. Then out of nowhere he reappeared and said exactly the above title phrase. Just the day prior I had talked to a high-risk Soldier who I felt highly concerned about. I asked the CSM who it was as we briskly walked toward the Battalion Commander's office. "SPC ___." Well that wasn't the Soldier who was in my office the day before, but I recognized the name, I was sure of it. That evening, the company commander and first sergeant recalled their people and we broke the news. Many were shocked, stunned, and did not take it well. It was a punch in their gut. We are planning the memorial event as I write this post. Unfortunately, this was not the first suicide situation I have been involved with, and likely won't be the last.
One of the hardest for me was the night I supported a casualty notification following a suicide. It was a Friday afternoon at #JointBaseLewisMcChord, WA. While on-call for notification/funeral duty, the phone rang. I was informed there had been a death and the Soldier's next of kin was in our area. I was assigned to a #CasualtyNotificationOfficer (CNO) who was also on-call that week. After changing into my dress uniform, the CNO and I met at the Casualty Assistance Center (CAC) for our detailed brief. We read the report and received the brief from the CAC civilian worker. He was thorough and had clearly done this many times. After a good while, we hopped in the military van and drove toward the address. The death had occurred in Texas and it had already been many hours, so we presumed there was a good chance this family member, the Soldier's sister, already knew. We parked on the street not far from her house. We had rehearsed the plan and knew what we had to do, but how do you really prepare yourself to tell someone such horrific news that will turn their world upside down? With hearts pounding, we walked in the darkness up to her door and knocked. No answer. We went back to the van and called the CAC to keep them updated. She was still at work. We had to wait for her to return. As I recall we waited for another 1-2 hours. Surely she knows by now, I thought, this will just be a formality. Finally a car pulled up to the house. She stopped to get her mail. That was when I had the suspicion that she, in fact, did not know that her sister was dead, because she was going about her usual routine. When we got out this time, we knew it was going to happen. When two Soldiers in full dress uniform show up at night at someone's house, they usually already know something is terribly wrong. As instructed, when she opened the door we briefly stated who we were and then the CNO asked, "Are you Ms. ___?" "Yes." "Are you the sister of SFC ___?" "Yes." Identity confirmed. "May we please come in?" That's when the look of great concern arose. We entered and sat on the couch adjacent to her. As hard as it was for the CNO to say it, I can't imagine how it felt to hear it: "Ma'am, the Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your sister, SFC ___ has died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound..." Shock and pain that I cannot imagine immediately surfaced as a sound of pure grief came out and she lowered her head while running her hands through her hair. In a trembling voice of disbelief she said, "I just talked to her! I just talked to her!" We finished providing any consolation we could, completed the admin paperwork, waited for a friend to come assist her, and left. I remember it was quite late when we finally returned to post. I woke up early the next day and drove to Seattle to conduct a veteran's funeral.
Suicide is permanent. Lives are forever altered. The Army has lost more Soldiers to suicide than to combat during the War on Terror. While every life lost is an unfathomable loss, this stat does help paint a picture of the magnitude of this deadly threat. The Army does much for suicide awareness and #suicideprevention. We conduct required training, encourage engaged leadership, provide mental health resources, display emergency numbers, offer morale events, resiliency training, and on and on the list goes. However...Soldiers are still killing themselves at alarming rates. Every time one chooses to take their life, it causes immense pain for anyone close to them. What is the solution? Is there a solution? Apparently it isn't more training on the subject. One might argue that the more we talk about it, the more people think about doing it. But we do our best to address the myriad of problems that lead people to consider this one final solution. In reality, there are many people in so much pain, they would rather die than live.
I believe we spend too much time trying to convince people to stop dying instead of helping people to start living. A person considering suicide has likely lost all sense of hope and purpose. So a solution is for such an individual to maintain hope by finding and living their purpose. This often cannot be done alone. Remaining connected to a healthy community or even one trusted friend is also key. These are guardrails not only for suicide, but against negative behavior in general. When one finds their purpose they start to do more than just be alive, they begin to live.
Another way to combat suicide is to expose and disarm the lies. I believe there is always hope. Therefore, when someone believes there is not, I try to help them find the root of that lie so it can be revealed and destroyed. When people believe lies spoken to them by others or by their circumstances, the power of it can feel overwhelming. In counseling, I do not teach coping mechanisms or psychotherapy. That's someone else's specialty and I do not pretend to be a professional in mental health. Some people have found benefit through other types of helping professions. I'm a pastor. As such, I believe all attempts to find the answer within one's self will ultimately fail. I find it more effective in destroying lies to reveal God's perspective about one's situation. If someone is open to it, (it's not always the case) we allow God's words in Scripture to speak to their circumstance and their heart. He is the author of life, so it should not surprise us that his words still breath life into people.
I'll end with what I tell Soldiers when they are in a deep, dark place. Your life is a unique story. Every story will have twists, turns, and unexpected setbacks. There will be victories but also loss and tragedy. There will be chapters that are very difficult. But a story is meant to be read to the end, not stopped abruptly. The only way to know how your story will end is to keep moving, one day, one hour, one minute at a time. Your situation, whatever it is, is temporary. Maybe your life has changed and you can't see a way forward. But the fog will not last forever. If you can't take another step, then take my hand, and lets walk together. Finally, if your heart is open to it, let's both take the hand of our loving and merciful God and invite him to journey with us. For he will lead us all the way through the valley of the shadow of death and into life everlasting.
In memory of SPC Donte Hicks (posthumously promoted to Sergeant).
During the ceremony, his close friend quoted this song in his remarks.
Music credit: "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa