When Vicki Duffy asks soldiers what comes to mind when they hear the words “suicide prevention,” she gets an earful about stale command briefings and overplayed commercials on military television stations.
Duffy, who is Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s suicide prevention officer, said she doesn’t take it personally. She’s been in the trenches of the Army’s program to curb suicides for four years, and she knows those old briefings aren’t enough to do the job.
“They’re valuable,” she said, “but they’re done in a way that is very old fashioned in the Army.”
Duffy and Lewis-McChord commanders this month updated their outreach down the ranks by ditching the old PowerPoint presentations in favor of one-on-one interactions between care providers and soldiers.
The effort peaked in the last two weeks with a leadership retreat for about 80 noncommissioned officers. At the same time, a suicide “stand down” was held in which officers and enlisted leaders took a walking tour of the base’s social support services.
No one can say if those steps will save a life, but the idea is to empower more soldiers with resources they can use in a moment of crisis.
Better yet, the courses are intended to help noncommissioned officers monitor and improve the health of soldiers in their charge.
“This has been one of those nagging problems, and I hope we have found a way to positively affect it,” said Col. Jeffrey Galin, the top medical officer for Lewis-McChord’s I Corps.
The outreach marks a change from early in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when commanders did not pay as much attention to emotional or psychological issues.
“It used to be ‘suck it up and drive on,’” said Sgt. Thomas Hollis, 46, of Lakewood, a four-time combat veteran from Lewis-McChord’s 4th Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment.
“‘Suck it up and drive on’ isn’t working anymore,” he said, citing alcohol abuse and suicides as signs of stress in the Army.
The effort follows Lewis-McChord’s worst year for soldier suicides since the war in Afghanistan began 11 years ago. Thirteen soldiers killed themselves at Lewis-McChord in 2011, up from nine in the previous two years.
This year, nine deaths at Lewis-McChord are under investigation as possible suicides.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press in June reported that active-duty suicides across the military were on pace to increase significantly this year after a couple of years of leveling off. In the first half of this year, 154 service members killed themselves, up from 130 in the first six months of 2010.
Those numbers can generate feelings of futility among active-duty soldiers who have sat through countless sessions on suicide awareness over the past few years.
One grim but common joke among soldiers holds that an Army PowerPoint presentation on suicide awareness could bring someone to the brink of taking his own life.
“They teach the same classes over and over again. They’re not working,” said Sgt. Sid Garner, 26, of Lewis-McChord’s 14th Engineer Battalion.
Garner and Hollis were among the noncommissioned officers picked to attend the Soldier 360 retreat in Lacey this week. They had frank discussions about motivating soldiers, addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress and adjusting to life at home after a combat tour.
Soldiers also got to practice yoga as meditation and take a responsible wine tasting class so they can model healthy drinking habits to junior soldiers.
The course aims to get the noncommissioned officers working closest with younger soldiers to see the broad array of military resources they can provide to distressed troops, from alcohol counseling to chaplains to discreet counselors who don’t share notes with commanders.
“If you want to address the suicides, the alcohol abuse, the anger, you have to hit it at the front of the training,” said Mary Lopez, the retired Army colonel who developed Soldier 360.
Garner, Hollis and other sergeants were impressed with the course. They spoke up during the classes and tried to get their limbs to bend at new angles during a morning yoga class.
“I think every sergeant should take this,” Garner said, adding that it helps leaders address the causes of stress in the ranks instead of the symptoms.
Hollis took a sense of community from the classes.
“This program teaches you what you’re going through is not that different from what your soldier is going through,” he said, “and you’re taking care of each other.”
Back at Lewis-McChord, commanders noted that more soldiers than they expected took part in walking tours of social service programs spread out across the sprawling base. They hope soldiers will take those lessons back to their units to connect troubled troops with the right resources.
“This is real on our installation,” Duffy said. “There are soldiers suffering, and we need to treat them as human beings.”