FORT MEADE, Md. — There was the staff sergeant who walked onto the street in front of his home – gun in hand – ready to end his life, when a neighbor stopped him from pulling the trigger.
There’s the lieutenant who vulnerably opened up to his commander during a battle assembly weekend – eyes so tired from not having slept in two days – and admitted he needed help.
The chaplain who lost his father to suicide in his grandmother’s house.
The sergeant who lost a Soldier during deployment.
The officer who handled a suicide investigation case.
A lost brother. A mother. A close friend.
Each of them sat in front of the camera to share their stories – raw and real and unscripted – for a new take on suicide prevention.
“The idea was, talk directly into the lens as if you were looking at that person who is in crisis. Look at them in the eye. Say whatever it is you need them to hear,” said David Dummer, the suicide prevention program manager for the 200th Military Police Command, headquartered at Fort Meade.
Since 2010, the command’s suicide rate has dropped 65 percent. It is currently at its lowest point on record. In four of the last five years, the command’s suicide rate has been below the civilian rate, based on similar age demographics. That’s not often true throughout most of the armed services, said Dummer.
“We’ve already seen a tremendous, tremendous reduction in our suicide rate using the old material, and I think these new (videos) will take us even further in the right direction,” said Dummer.
The goal is to create something new, powerful and impactful to use in suicide prevention training, unlike some of the canned material that has been in use for several years now.
Suicide prevention training is required for all Soldiers. In spite of everyone recognizing how incredibly important it is, Soldiers often groan at the training because the materials used often feel scripted or repetitive, said Dummer.
“Our suicide prevention effort is to save lives. We recognized some time ago that the training material we have been given to use is rather stale,” Dummer said.
These new video messages are intended to change that. They are designed to supplement current material, not replace it.
“The official Army line is to reduce suicides, but in the 200th we’re aiming to eliminate them completely,” said Dummer.
The video shoot spanned two days at the Defense Media Activity (DMA), recorded inside a state of the art studio that reassured everyone that this was important. Their stories would be handled with care and professionalism. It wasn’t going to be some PSA message haphazardly thrown together at the last minute. Dummer and his team at the 200th MP Command had been planning this shoot for months, calling Soldiers from across the United States to take part in the effort.
“Their words have power. That power will ripple throughout the audience and beyond as people start to talk about what they saw on camera … It takes a lot of courage to get up and speak about your personal experiences publically,” Dummer said.
The primary audience for this video is the MP command itself, composed of nearly 14,000 U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers across the United States. Most of those Soldiers are MPs who specialize in combat support, detention operations and criminal investigations – among other job specialties. These are Soldiers who have experienced deployment, trauma and life stressors as intense as any active duty Soldier.
“I always brag that I have more combat stripes than I have service stripes,” said Staff Sgt. Preston Snowden, a 20-year Army veteran who is also a civilian police officer from Atlanta.
Snowden is also a suicide prevention instructor who often shares personal experiences to connect with Soldiers during training.
“Me being a police officer thinking I knew how to handle every situation, because I’ve dealt with child molestations. I’ve dealt with suicides … Overdoses. Murders. On the outside looking in, you have that mindset, just like you would in the military, that it’s work. When it’s over, it’s over. You go home,” he said.
Yet, the challenges of adjusting to home life after deployment only grew worse when trauma struck in his own house. One of his own daughters was sexually assaulted. He felt like a failure. He was her father. Her protector. A police officer. A former infantryman. If he couldn’t protect her, who could?
Over time, that sense of shame and worthlessness brought him onto the street with a gun. He didn’t want to end his life in his house or his back yard. He looked both ways to ensure no cars were coming. Then he heard a voice.
“Hey, brother, what are you doing?” It was his neighbor. Up until that day, Snowden didn’t even know the man’s name.
Snowden tried to make some excuse.
“That’s bull----,” the neighbor responded. “I see it. Cause I’ve done it. I was there. I could see it a mile away. I could pretty much smell it on you. Let’s talk.”
The man introduced himself as Fred. A 32-year Army veteran. A man who cuts the grass and works in the yard every day as his personal outlet. Through that interaction, Fred saved Snowden’s life.
Other stories shared on camera didn’t have a happy ending. On holidays and birthdays, Soldiers still miss the loved ones they lost to suicide. Yet, even though each story is personal and unique, they all share a universal message.
“I think the one theme that emerged from every single story … is the value of reaching out to someone around you, or to the people around you, and asking them for their support in getting through whatever tough time you’re experiencing,” said Dummer.
Soldiers often don’t express their need for help because they’re afraid of losing their security clearances, or their careers. They’re afraid of appearing weak or inferior. Dummer hopes to help dispel those fears through this video series.
Dummer also wants all Army Reserve leaders to know that if a Soldier expresses suicidal ideations, commanders can place those Soldiers on 72-hour orders to provide them immediate medical treatment at the nearest civilian emergency room or military hospital. The video will also provide a list of other helpful resources, such as “Give an Hour,” which offers free behavioral health services to all military members.
It’s not enough to raise awareness about a problem, if that awareness offers no solutions, Dummer said. These videos will do both.
The command has at least one more day scheduled at the DMA studios in January, before post production and editing begins. Once finished, the videos will be packaged and distributed throughout the command for training purposes beginning in the spring of 2019.