My experience with military leadership and mental health:

By F.P. Williams

The promise that I have kept hearing in over 9 years of service in the U.S. Army was that if you needed help, say something, and the Army would have your back. What I saw was a completely different story. Now, this is just my personal experience, and I am sure that my experience isn’t shared by all. However, I feel what I have witnessed as a leader in the Army after having been in seven companies within five brigades is not an isolated behavior by senior leaders.

From the day I went on active duty, I was inodiated with suicide prevention classes, forced to carry an ACE card (Ask, Care, Escort) all in the name of preventing suicide. The DoD was facing pressure from Congress and the public to help stop the significantly higher suicide rate among members of the Armed Forces. What I quickly learned through hearing class after class and safety brief after safety brief was that this was mostly leadership, giving lip service to suicide prevention.

My first experience with a Soldier with suicidal ideations came just weeks after arriving at my first unit in December of 2011. A young Soldier had just arrived at the unit right as the rest of the unit was going on holiday block leave. At only 18, she had never been away from home before leaving for basic training, so she was now spending her first Christmas away from home in a new place, in a new environment, and without any friends or family. Luckily, she sought treatment for her depression, and nothing negative came from that situation. Now a little more than a year past and she was dealing with a whole new set of life circumstances and sought inpatient treatment off post. I accompanied the Company Commander to a weekly update with our Brigade Commander, and we talked about the status of our high-risk Soldiers. When we discussed what was going on with this Solider, he said something to the effect of “We aren’t running a welfare program get her out of the Army.” She had spent the last year being a productive member of the team, and now that she had sought the help, she needed it was time for her to go. Well, I couldn’t do that to her, so I continued to visit her at the hospital, and she was able to return to the unit. She was able to finish out her contract and was not kicked out, but, at that moment, I knew the Army leadership didn’t have your back when it came to getting help. 

Still, while in that same unit, I had another Soldier who had been seeing behavioral health. He was one of the smartest Soldiers I have ever worked with and just a great guy. He joined the Army a little later in life and had already graduated college but was only a specialist. One day I received a call informing me that I had to pick him up from the behavioral health clinic and escort him to the hospital because they wanted to evaluate him. When I arrived at the clinic and picked him up, he was in pretty good spirits just was mad that he answered honestly when the doctor asked if he wanted to harm anyone. See, he was much smarter than the sergeant to whom he reported, and he would get frustrated with him. So, when the doctor asked, he said: “Yeah, I’d like to punch my squad leader in the face.”

We just kind of laughed about it, and we thought we would be in and out of the hospital shortly once he could explain he was not really a threat to anyone. We go to the ER and check-in; we were there about a half-hour before they called us up, and they took us to the elevator and said we would be going to see the behavior health specialist. Well, when we arrived at 11 West, the doors to the elevator closed, and they told him that he was being admitted to inpatient care. They had utterly betrayed his trust and locked him up against his will. How would he ever want to be honest again? How would anyone in the unit feel like they could be honest with a doctor after they saw their friend locked up? I even felt betrayed because, as his supervisor, they were not honest with me either. He made it out after spending several days up there and returned to the unit. Did people talk about him behind his back? Probably although I never heard anything, I am sure all kinds of rumors were spread. The last time I saw him was in 2013 when I left the unit to prepare to go to Afghanistan, and things seemed like they were going fine. I do not know what all happened, but one day on Facebook a few years back I got a message from one of my friends, and it said that that Solider had taken his own life and my heart sunk because this was the second Facebook message that read just like this about someone from that company. I do not know what was going on with him at that time, but I sure wish he could have gotten the help he needed. The first Facebook message that I received was that the Platoon Sergeant from my former sister platoon killed himself while he was in Korea after leaving out the unit. What do you even say? This was a guy who was always smiling and happy, but apparently, he was suffering deep down.