By F.P. Williams

The suicide of one of the Platoon Sergeants I had worked with would not be the last time that I would deal with suicide in my unit, unfortunately. I PCS’d to Fort Campbell in January of 2014 and arrived in the unit just in time to be left on rear detachment as they headed for their deployment to Afghanistan. I remember the first weekend I was in the unit. I got a call to head to the hospital because I had a Soldier call the suicide hotline, and he was extremely intoxicated.

Fortunately, in this situation, the Soldier did not want to commit suicide, but he needed help. He had gotten a DUI and was on his way out of the Army. The pending separation from the service meant that all of his brothers were going to Afghanistan without him. So, for him, it was that he did not want to live but that he let others down, and he used drinking as a coping mechanism.

He would continue to get in trouble the rest of the time he spent in the Army from bar fights to drunkenly harassing his squad leader, and I do not think that his issues were addressed well, but I think that was because he knew what to tell the counselors to just get by and finish his treatment. I do not know where he is today, but I can probably guarantee he is still using alcohol as a means to cope.

“Playing the game” as we would call it would become a common theme amongst Soldiers during my time in that unit. I had another Solider who was going through a messy divorce involving kids and infidelity. No matter the validity of the situation that landed him in inpatient care, once he was there, he so desperately wanted to be out that he was just trying to say the right things to be released. Was he really getting the help he needed? Probably not, but I think in his case, it was because he did not want help. He was an infantryman with almost 20 years in service between the Marines and Army. He did not need anyone’s help because that is what the military had taught him to do. Never was that clearer than when I witnessed that happen first hand upon the units return from Afghanistan.

One of the Soldiers who had been deployed with the unit was moved under my leadership. He was struggling with mental health issues. Before they went on post-deployment block leave, the Battalion Commander called the Soldier and me into his office to have a conversation. This was when I learned why the Solider was struggling. He had one of his friends die in his arms a few years prior during a previous deployment to Afghanistan. The Battalion Commander basically said, “You know how many people I’ve seen die? You need to get over it”.

The Battalion Commander did not really have a considerable amount of empathy and probably needed to get some help himself, but that is the reaction of senior leaders in the military. It is though they treat mental health as a weakness, and if you need anything more than to take a knee and drink water, then you need to get out of the way. It is no wonder they have not been able to make a meaningful change to the suicide rate.

This hardheaded attitude the military has is being exhibited with current events surrounding COVID-19. Units refused to react or taken deliberate actions to respond because they are so mission-focused. They seem to forget that it is Soldiers who accomplish the mission and that if they are not healthy, then there is not going to be anyone left to complete the mission. Maybe it is time that no Solider left behind becomes something that matters both on and off the battlefield.

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