Phase II of suicide prevention training takes personal approach

by Dave Melancon
U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs

HEIDELBERG, Germany – The Army lost one active duty Soldier to suicide in April and is investigating six other potential suicides, according to a May 7 Department of the Army press release.

The same report noted that the Army had 35 active-duty suicides during 2009 and 29 other deaths which are under investigation to determine their cause.

To combat suicide within the ranks, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli issued a comprehensive, multidisciplinary Army Campaign Plan for Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention.

The plan, published April 24, encompasses the physical, spiritual and mental health of Soldiers and their families.

In U. S. Army Europe, the second phase of Army-mandated suicide prevention training for Soldiers and civilian employees began in March and continues through July, and takes a more personal approach.

Called Shoulder to Shoulder: No Soldier Stands Alone, the training picks up where the Beyond the Front training conducted during a USAREUR-wide suicide prevention stand-down in March left off. Small-unit leaders and first-line supervisors will conduct the training.

“(The first phase) was intended to make an impact with immediate execution by enhancing Soldiers’ ability to recognize risk factors and warning signs,” explained B. Joy Summerlin, Well-Being and Quality of Life Program manager for the USAREUR personnel division. “Phase one provided ways to intervene in order to prevent suicidal behavior. Phase two is intended to augment phase one with a more deliberate and personal approach to (the) training.”

Led by non-commissioned officers and other first-line leaders, Shoulder to Shoulder is conducted in small groups with members who know one another, bringing the training closer to home and making it more relevant to the team, Ms. Summerlin said.

Soldiers and Department of the Army civilian employees must attend the course. Contractors and family members are invited to participate as well, according to the Army policy.

Shoulder to Shoulder focuses on the aftermath of suicide and works to eliminate the stigma and myths that may prevent a person from seeking help or from helping a comrade in trouble, said Chaplain (Capt.) David Montgomery, V Corps Special Troops Battalion chaplain.

“This is not a scenario-based (presentation),” Chaplain Montgomery explained. “This is a follow-up to the training that the Soldiers received in the first phase. It is a straight 13 minutes of guys and gals sharing their stories – real-life experiences with suicide, firsthand.”

The chaplain said among the leaders who tell their stories is Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, commander of 1st U.S. Army’s Training Division (West) and Fort Carson, Colo., who talks about how he and his wife coped with the suicide of their son, Mark.

“They are coming at it from a parent’s perspective. They talk about what it did to them,” he said. “It talks about what they had to wrestle with.”

Chaplain Montgomery said chaplains, health care professionals and subject-matter experts from USAREUR, the Installation Management Command – Europe and the Europe Regional Medical Command are sharing resources and will back up training instructors to increase the program’s effectiveness.

The presentation also includes discussions of Army values and loyalty, Chaplain Montgomery said.

“It talks about being there for our buddies – caring for them and supporting them,” he said.

One of the primary goals of the training is to convince those who may be contemplating suicide to get help, Chaplain Montgomery said, noting that sometimes Soldiers are afraid their reputations and careers will be damaged if they ask for help.

The chaplain added that the small group sessions will allow participants to talk about suicide in a safe environment, but stressed that they are not designed to be group counseling or therapy sessions.

“With the smaller groups, we will have a more intimate setting and will give individuals the opportunity to talk in an environment where you do not have 200 other people,” he said.

All members of the Army family are part of the same team, the chaplain said.

“Everyone – battle buddies, family members, chaplains and heath care professionals – needs to watch out for one another and be ready to seek or provide help,” he said.