FORT LEE, Va. –
Cracked voices and sobbing could be heard from Soldiers' of the 94th Training Division-Force Sustainment (TD-FS) Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), as heartfelt emotional personal stories about the suicide of loved ones and fellow service members were shared. Suicide is a catastrophic occurrence that painstakingly impacts the lives of service members and their loved ones.
Although Suicide Prevention Awareness Month is every September, prevention training continues throughout the year, especially amid a global pandemic. Soldiers of the 94th TD-FS HHC, a down-trace unit of the 80th Training Command (The Army School System), gathered for their virtual battle assembly, where they received suicide prevention training on October 24, 2020.
For any military organization, Soldier training is a significant part of Soldier and mission readiness. Michelle Rollins, the 94th TD-FS Family Readiness Group (FRG) leader, understand the value and impact guest speakers make during training, so she reached out and invited Sarah Smith, a widow of a Soldier who lost his life to suicide, to speak to the headquarters staff during the unit's suicide prevention training session.
"Training is important, and while we have designated trainers and manuals, it is essential to have powerful speakers that also connect to our Soldiers," said Rollins. "So much occurred globally this year, and a considerable amount of training is conducted virtually. I wanted to find a way for the 94th Soldiers to receive a real-life, first-hand experience that would last forever for many."
According to Rollins, one of the FRG program's roles consists of providing training and resources to Soldiers and their Families, and suicide prevention is a delicate topic that's an indispensable element of military training that's never easy to discuss nor address. "The FRG aids with providing key updated information to continue that line of communication through training, newsletters, and speakers that'll help the overall mission and readiness of Soldiers and Families," said Rollins.
"For instance, learning, knowing, and being aware of risk factors, warning signs, along with providing the suicide prevention hotline point of contact are tools that give Soldiers, and their Families means to prepare in the event of an actual situation," Rollins added.
With Smith taking part in the 94th's HHC suicide prevention training, she described what inspired her to share her story and the loss of her husband, Sgt. 1st Class James Smith. "Since James's death, my passion has consist of several things," said Smith. "Change can be made with how suicide is viewed by the military, specifically with training. I also don't want James's death to be in vain."
Although Smith has never taken part in a suicide prevention training session for a military organization, she expressed how she felt upon being asked to do so.
"I was honored to speak to the Soldiers," said Smith. "Since James's death, I have just been praying that our story could change how suicide is viewed by sharing our struggles with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how this affects Families; how it affects us all. My prayer was that God uses us when he felt I was ready, then he would open doors."
Smith goes on to share several reasons why suicide prevention training is vital for the military. She stated that the chances of all of us knowing someone who has taken their life in the military are likely and is curious if we fully understand the prevention awareness process.
"Knowing the signs and the red flags can help prevent a Soldier's suicide; however, this training isn't curving the numbers," said Smith. "It is crucial to come up with training that includes the whole story of suicide. Someone that is in that dark space needs to know that they are important and loved. I also feel that spouses need training in suicide prevention and how to handle situations at home dealing with a Soldier's PTSD or depression."
"Soldiers need to know that their Families love them and that it isn't just a few months of grieving for them, and then life is back to normal," Smith added. "They need to know that their life as a spouse, son, or daughter, as a father or mother counts. I was unfortunate but fortunate to have a childhood friend that I am close to that had lost her Air Force husband nearly four years ago due to suicide."
While Smith's friend could be a support system during a time of need, Smith had many questions about the suicide prevention training her spouse received and how her spouse possibly used his training to mask his warning signs from those close to him. "Had James heard from a widow of suicide and the toll it has on a loved one, and I wonder if that would have been enough to prevent his decision the night he took his life," said Smith.
Smith's faith played a central role in her strength, vulnerability, and transparency to open up to others aside from loved ones and other widows. "God gives me strength daily," said Smith. "There are so many moments that I feel like I will die from a broken heart; even now, a year later, the rawness is still very much alive."
"If his story saves one life, then it will all be worth it," Smith continued. "If telling our story can give new light to suicide prevention, it is all worth it. To Soldiers and Families going through the same experience or a similar situation, breathe and grieve. Cry when you need to and reach out to others—making those connections are a must."
As the 94th HHC virtual suicide prevention training went on, for Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rajack, an Army Reserve information technology noncommissioned officer assigned to the 94th TD-FS HHC, the training touched him due to his encounters with Sgt. 1st Class Smith.
"This suicide prevention training had a powerful impact on me because I worked with Sgt. 1st Class Smith", said Rajack. "This training was the most consequential suicide prevention training that I have ever had in my career. I believe this training had a greater significance on everyone in the class. It seemed that nearly everyone who chimed in during the virtual class had a deep emotional response to the training session. That is due in large part to hearing Ms. Smith's story."
"Rarely do we as Battle Buddies get to hear the other side of the story—from the widow's perspective," said Rajack. "Ms. Smith's bravery in sharing her story and the story of her family helped to drive home the heart-wrenching repercussions of suicide."
For Rajack, a Soldier for 18 years, he believes all service members must maintain and heighten their awareness of suicide within the Army. "With the pandemic running rampant throughout the world, and stay-at-home restrictions being the norm, we must all lookout for warning signs in the event a fellow Soldier may be thinking of suicide," he said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or Military Crisis Line, free support for all Service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and all Veterans at (800) 273-8255.