Sgt. Dan Smith is a 25-year-old active-duty Soldier in the third month of his second deployment.
Until recently, he had been able to cope. Then, while on patrol, the unit was attacked by insurgents, and Smith failed to return fire. In an instant, two guys in his unit were gunned down by the enemy.
When Smith returned to the safety of the rear area, he began to think obsessively about the incident. He could not justify why his fellow Soldiers were killed and he was still alive.
Later that day, Smith was talking about the incident with his battle buddy, Sgt. Mullins.
“I should have died with my friends,” Smith said.
As an alert friend, Mullins asked Smith what he meant.
Smith said he could not understand how he had survived the firefight. He shared terrible feelings of guilt about his failure to fire his weapon, and he wondered if his failure to fire had caused the death of his fellow Soldiers.
He revealed that the incident brought back painful memories of battle buddies lost during his first deployment.
Mullins listened to Smith for what seemed like a long time and then said, “Hey, I was in that firefight too. I don’t think we could have done anything to save those guys.”
Recalling his suicide intervention training on ACE, Mullins gathered his courage and asked Smith if he was thinking about hurting himself.
Smith hesitated for a moment and then said, “No, but I can’t stop thinking that I should have died with the others.”
Mullins was concerned about that answer, and he suggested that Smith speak to the chaplain.
“The chaplain will help you make some sense out of this,” he said. “Come on, I’ll go with you to the chaplain’s office. I need my old battle buddy back.”
Smith agreed to see the chaplain. After a few sessions, he was feeling better. He continued to mourn for his lost buddies; however, he no longer felt guilty.
This fictionalized story had a very satisfying ending: Smith was fortunate to have a battle buddy who cared enough to get involved. Mullins heard Smith’s unusual comment. It alerted him to implement his ACE (“Ask, Care, Escort”) training to help his friend. Mullins decided he had to get involved, and his decision to use ACE may have saved Smith’s life.
Unfortunately, not all situations have a positive outcome. Far too often, Soldiers fail to intervene because they do not want to intrude into a buddy’s privacy. Sometimes Soldiers just lack the courage or confidence to get involved. The Army needs Soldiers to be involved and intervene when a buddy appears to be struggling with a problem. Suicide in the Army has become a matter of great concern. To stop suicides, Soldiers must be more vigilant and willing act on their ACE training.
A key element of suicide prevention is for troops to recognize when a comrade may be at risk for suicide, ask about it, and help the Soldier who is thinking about suicide to get specialized help. The assumption is that Soldiers know each other best and they understand and relate to common experiences.
The Army ACE acronym is used to reinforce the basic concepts needed by a battle buddy to help a suicidal Soldier. Ask your buddy about his or her suicidal thoughts. Care for your battle buddy by understanding that he or she may be in pain. Escort your battle buddy immediately to your chain of command, chaplain or behavioral health professional.
The Army has developed an easy-to- learn ACE intervention training program to help prevent suicide.
A Soldier’s suicide negatively affects unit cohesion. A suicide can demoralize and seriously disrupt the unit’s ability to sustain its mission. Soldiers and leaders have a vested interest in helping buddies who are thinking of suicide.
If Soldiers develop awareness and intervention skills at the individual level, they become a force for preservation of life within the unit.
Cartwright is a social worker with U.S. Army Public Health Command (Provisional).