My first contact with military suicide happened before I was an active duty soldier. In college, one of my ROTC classmates at Johns Hopkins took his life.
Shortly after I arrived at my first duty station in 2006, I received word that one of my junior female soldiers had attempted suicide. She was homesick and felt completely alone while deployed to Germany. Suicide seemed like the only way out to her.
I felt like we —my unit and I — had failed this soldier and dedicated myself to making sure she received the help and support she needed to move forward. She went from nearly terminal homesickness and crisis to being a happy and productive member of society. She started a family, too.
From that point on, I promised to be more closely involved with my soldiers so they’d feel comfortable talking to their chain of command before the stress of military service escalated into harmful behavior.
I never had another soldier in my command attempt to take their life — but on my last assignment before leaving the Army, I was once again brought face-to-face with suicide.
While working with an aide-de-camp to a commanding general, a much-admired sergeant — who worked directly with senior leadership — shot and killed himself. This time, there was no cry for help. Nothing.
It was clear that something had to be done proactively to get our brothers and sisters in arms the help they needed and reduce the number of service members and veterans lost to suicide.
In 2010, I co-founded Stop Soldier Suicide with my friends and fellow Army veterans Nick Black and Craig Gridelli. Like me, both encountered suicide during their time in the service. For us, military suicide isn’t just a problem. It’s personal.
Through our experiences, we realized that the key to preventing suicide is to identify, understand, and address the underlying issues — things like financial strain, post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues, and difficulties navigating the transition from military to civilian — BEFORE they escalate to a point of crisis.
In the early days, the three of us worked out of our living rooms in North Carolina and New York City while juggling school and full-time jobs. Soldiers would call our cell phones, and we’d personally search for the appropriate resources to help. Well, if you’ve ever tried to google “help for soldiers” or “help for veterans,” you know that the sheer number of results is overwhelming.
There are thousands of organizations offering services and support to our military and veterans, which is great. But most have a niche focus — equine therapy, yoga, help for homeless veterans, retreats for combat vets with PTSD, etc. And that’s on top of the programs and services available through the VA and DoD. What do you do? Does your contact, friend, or loved one need yoga? A home? Which organization is the right one? Which one do you call?