05 November 2012
A Guest post by Barbara Lawrence
A late Wednesday night.
Michael M, a National Guardsman, is badly worried about his Battle Buddy, a fellow Guardsman in another platoon. His buddy is talking suicide in a real and frightening way. Michael is out of phone minutes and can only text. He does not have a roster of company phone numbers. The command post closed at 5:00pm. He is desperate to help his buddy.
I will always place the mission first.
Meanwhile, "Dan," a/k/a ~HMFIC~, the founder of Facebook (FB) page “Awesome Shit My Drill Sergeant Said,” (ASMDDS) is about to hit the sack. The page combines humor, news, military charity fund-raising, and reader stories about outrageous, outstanding and life-changing encounters with Drill Sergeants. It is run by current and former Drill Sergeants. With over 76,000 fans registered since August of this year, the page has hit home with members of the military, their families, and civilians alike.
Michael frantically messages the Page, and his message is seen by Dan, who just happens to glance at his phone prior to bedtime. Now alert, Dan asks Michael what made him think that his friend was planning suicide. Michael replies with screen shots of his buddy’s last posts and messages. Upon viewing the first image, Dan's blood turned cold. A soldier is in trouble, the suicide risk is real, and the clock is ticking.
Immediately, Dan posts on ASMDSS that fun time is over, that there is a real crisis, "We have a troop in trouble", and asks for anyone in the Kingsport, Tennessee area to contact ASMDSS immediately.
What followed for the next five hours was an outpouring of support both on FB and behind the scenes via email and messages. Four thousand people followed through the night, many refusing to go to bed until they heard news of the soldier's situation, prayers were said, candles lit, stories shared of personal pain over a buddy’s suicide, and of personal struggles and triumphs with depression and PTSD. Overall, the theme that "we are a family" was heard throughout the night. It didn't matter what your race, sex, religion, rank, branch or MOS was. A brother was in trouble, and losing one more was one too many.
Behind the scenes twenty people rushed to Kingsport for a soldier that they never met, some from 100 miles away, with many more ready to go at a moment's notice. Dan received a flood of emails from soldiers, detectives, firefighters, computer hackers, hostage negotiators, cell phone executives, paramedics, crisis counselors, and police officers, all offering assistance. Additionally three police departments and two sheriff departments were scouting for Michael’s friend locally. They did not know the soldier either, but they knew that a life was at stake. Through the internet and technology, Dan was able to pull the LAT/LONG coordinates off of the soldier's cell phone, but the coordinates were only accurate to within 100 meters. The location was a set of large apartment complexes. Hundreds of apartments, and in one of them a soldier was planning to end his life. Worse, he had stopped responding to messages from anyone.
I will never accept defeat.
This year alone suicides have exceeded combat deaths in Afghanistan. Despite eight-hour long Power-Point presentations on prevention, millions of dollars spent, and increased use of mental health care by active duty soldiers and veterans alike, suicide remains a problem that will not go away. There is still a stigma in admitting to emotional or mental problems, still a sense that it is a "sign of weakness," and the valid fear that documented treatment for a mental health issue can adversely impact one's security clearance or eligibility to deploy. Though Op-Ed pieces speculate about multiple deployments, PTSD, and reluctance to seek treatment, one National Guard study found that failed relationships (often affected by deployment) topped the list, followed by finances and employment.
The soldier was not at his last known address. He quit answering text messages. The hopelessness was in him, and the silence was gut wrenching. Anxiety grew on ASMDSS as longer pauses between status updates grew. People who had to leave for work soon refused to go to bed, waiting for a glimmer of hope. Posts from Iowa, Washington, Brooklyn, Georgia, Texas, the UK, Australia, and Afghanistan appeared, all asking the same questions, "Have you found him? Is he okay?"
I will never quit.
Dan was able to find out the soldier's unit, and by tracking down its website's administrator, located the private cell number of 1Lt Andrew Kelley, the unit executive officer, who responded immediately. The Commander, Captain Haris Balcinovic, also was alerted, and he immediately went to the desperate soldier's general location. Finally, they were able to locate and talk at length with their soldier. And to their credit, he said "Yes," to their offer of help.
A global sigh of relief and “high five” moments could have been heard if you were listening. ASMDSS is mostly for fun, but Dan believes that the fans of ASMDSS saved a life that day. The "brotherhood," the bond forged in the military, and the warrior ethos, supersedes all boundaries.
Dan also considers suicide prevention a last line of defense in Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF), which is expressed in Master Resilience Training (MRT). MRT was designed for the military by the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology department. It trains NCOs, but in turn it allows them to train their recruits and soldiers how to manage adverse life events, how to build on their personal strengths, and how to modify their communication skills, rather than simply coping as best they can. MRT is a part of CSF, a program initiated in 2009 to improve the soldiers' ability to manage life challenges. A study published in January, 2012, showed that Brigade Combat Teams receiving MRT displayed better unit leadership and cohesion. Unit cohesion appears to be a major factor in reducing suicide risk.
For Guardsmen returning from deployment, there is no return to an installation with a large support system in place. There is a brief ceremony, and then they go home. For Guardsmen, the answer is not so easy. There do have peer-to-peer resources such as Veteran’s Centers or the Coming Home Project. CSF-2 has also been launched this year, to include not only the soldier, but also family members, both before and post-deployment.
Building on the success of this episode, the administrators of ASMDSS envision a better way to respond to soldiers' distress, capitalizing on the use of social media and the extended reach of other military support web pages. Some soldiers seem to respond better talking with another soldier who has "been there," buddy to buddy, than to crisis hotlines with scripted responses from civilian crisis counselors. And sometimes the fear of getting the chain-of-command or law enforcement involved, and the threat of a psychiatric 72-hour "hold," discourages soldiers from otherwise seeking help.
The plan would be to allow a soldier to talk to a buddy anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, whether it is just to vent, or to bring more help to bear when needed. The details are not completely settled, but this is one more way of taking care of their own.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
In Dan's own words, "A nation is judged on how they treat their Warriors once they return from the field of battle. Despite our best intentions and efforts as a society, we are failing those who sacrificed for us in exchange for the unspoken promise that we as a Nation would have their back when the fighting was done.
If a Soldier or Veteran is at the point where a permanent solution to a temporary problem has become an option...then we have already failed that individual.
We at ASMDSS refuse to stand by as our buddies suffer alone and in silence. The implications of the success attained that night are not lost on us, and we will be making sure that this opportunity to help our Brothers and Sisters in Arms does not fade into a distant memory.
Our Drill Sergeant Badge is emblazoned with our watchwords, "This We'll Defend", and we intend to do so."
1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387) 24/7/365 Talk to another Combat Veteran
1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) Military/Veterans Crisis Line
ASMDSS Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/ASMDSS
ASMDSS Twitter Page: http://www.twitter.com/asmdss
ASMDSS Website: http://www.asmdss.com
Military Suicide Hotlines http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/default.asp
FAQs About Asking For Help For Suicide http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/faq.asp#ques87
Suicide Prevention In The Army http://www.army.mil/article/86548/Suicide_prevention__A_healthy_force_is_a_ready_force/
Suicide Statistics in the National Guard 2007 http://www.army.mil/article/4490/suicide-named-third-leading-cause-of-death-among-national-guard-soldiers/
Army Suicide and Its Prevention http://www.care2.com/causes/army-suicide-numbers-are-on-the-rise.html
Soldier Suicide Statistics 2004-2008 http://depression.about.com/b/2012/03/23/stress-of-war-has-caused-sharp-rise-in-army-suicides.htm
Unit Cohesion and Coming Home Project http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-bobrow/military-suicides-stigma-_b_1677798.html
Comprehensive Soldier Fitness http://www.annistonstar.com/view/full_story/4548315/article-The-Army-s-pain--Causes-and-solutions-of-suicide
Master ResilienceTraining http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/mrtinarmyjan2011.pdf
MRT Effectiveness http://www.army.mil/article/72431/Study_concludes_Master_Resilience_Training_effective
MRT in 2010 http://www.army.mil/article/36520/army-master-resilience-training-course-provides-valued-instruction/