The numbers are still moving in the wrong direction, but Army chaplain Capt. Matthew Hebebrand isn’t losing heart as he heads into another round of suicide-prevention briefings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
He can tell the message is getting out. He hears it from soldiers who seek his help and say they recognize signs of emotional distress in part because of the Army’s recent focus on preventing suicides.
“If you can get soldiers to care for their brothers and sisters to their left and their right at the lowest level, then the Army’s going to be a better place,” Hebebrand said.
Last week, the chaplain led a weeklong training session for soldiers in Lewis-McChord’s 17th Fires Brigade. The program, called Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, aims to coach troops on ways to care for themselves, their families and their fellow service members.
Over five days, the entire 2,000-soldier brigade stepped back from training with its artillery weapons and focused on other skills, from listening to their loved ones to preventing sexual assaults within their ranks.
The Army developed the program about three years ago to help soldiers coping with repeat combat tours, which can keep them focused on their missions at the expense of their relationships.
The thinking behind the program is that paying attention to life skills will develop a healthier, more resilient Army better prepared to carry out the Pentagon’s orders.
“If we can get the relationships and the resiliency right, the readiness (for deployments) will come,” said Lt. Col. Luis Rivera, an energetic officer who leads the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery Regiment.
Heberbrand’s suicide prevention course began with a frank acknowledgement that the Army hasn’t figured out how to reverse a troubling trend.
The Army announced that 177 deaths among active-duty soldiers through November last year were being investigated as possible suicides. That’s 11 more than took place in all of 2011.
The Army is expected to announce a final total for 2012 in coming weeks. Lewis-McChord has not released an update on how many suspected suicides took place at the base last year. The numbers have been climbing since 2005, despite massive investments in behavioral-health outreach.
“The reason we’re still here in these classes is that people are still killing themselves,” Hebebrand told Rivera’s group of soldiers. “Until that number hits zero, we’ll keep doing this to raise awareness, so you can take care of the people to your right and your left.”
The message had the potential to drag down soldiers who have sat through similar briefings repeatedly the past few years. But Hebebrand kept the discussion lively, even on a dreary day in a windowless room.
He tossed out candy to the artillerymen as they shared ideas about how to notice if a peer seems to be considering suicide. Soldiers in the class stayed engaged, discussing ways people show emotional distress, such as changing habits or becoming disengaged.
A similar spirit held up in different classrooms. A class on nurturing family relationships repeatedly broke out in loud laughter.
A class on better communication had soldiers teasing each other as they demonstrated their ability to speak clearly, with confidence and control, as their instructor directed.
Sgt. 1st Class William Schmidt, who led the communication class, let his guard down during the discussion. He talked about how he might have communicated better with his ex-wife, wondering whether it could have improved their relationship.
He said he had no regrets about how the marriage ended.
Still, “Maybe if I went through some of this, I could’ve figured it out.”