COLUMBUS, Ohio –
“If there is any time where we need suicide prevention training, it is now,” said Army Reserve Capt. Devin Richter, assigned to the 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command’s 3rd battalion, 383rd Regiment, based in St. Louis, Missouri. “It’s during COVID that people are not able to interact with their friends and loved ones like they used to. We are not a people of isolation. We are a people of interaction. We thrive off of others. We get energy from others. Others lift us up.”
Richter, who was preparing to depart on a mobilization with First Army’s 120th Infantry Brigade the following week, led the operation cell to help create the 85th USARSC’s second annual Stand for Life suicide prevention training but this time in a virtual setting.
“We attempted to try to make this work in March but because of COVID, everything spiraled into a shut down and we were not able to launch the (live) training a week before it was supposed to take place,” said Carmella Navarro, Suicide Prevention Program Manager, 85th USARSC.
Navarro came together with command SPPMs from the 4th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), the 451st Sustainment Command, (Expeditionary), the 76th U.S. Army Reserve Operational Response Command and received support from the Office of the Chief, Army Reserve to take their previously established three-day live training event and examine how they could effectively conduct it virtually.
“Thanks to Mister (Jose) Mojica (SPPM for the U.S. Army Reserve), we were given the green light to step outside of the box and train the way we feel our Soldiers can be trained,” said Navarro. “As a program manager, you have to get to know your units. You need to know your battalion commanders, the brigades and the Soldiers that are your liaisons.”
The training, that was collaborated with several of the Army Reserve’s subordinate commands, brought a majority of the trainers together to Columbus, Ohio but conducted the training virtually to 79 Suicide Prevention Liaisons via a digital communication platform. The training entailed skills on support for resourcing and networking capabilities, intervention for at-risk personnel for suicide, postvention discussing what does someone or an entire unit do after a suicide has taken place and wellness and selfcare which brings focus to the individual providing care and support to difficult situations. Additionally, liaisons are prepared with the formal process called G-1 directives to properly prepare a command on what to do if a suicidal ideation or attempt takes place.
“As suicide prevention liaisons complete this course, they will be able to go back to their units and be identified as an SPL, so if an ideation or attempt occurs, or if a (suicide) completion occurs, they’ll be able to help inform their commands on what do to,” said Sylvia Lopez, who works as a staff administrative specialist for the 85th USARSC’s 1st battalion, 338th Regiment and participated as lead facilitator for the Stand for Life training.
Jennifer Bantner, assigned to the 75th Innovation Command, along with Ariesa Evans, assigned to the 85th USARSC’s 3rd Battalion, 338th Regiment, facilitated the G-1 directives module, one of the five modules. This module taught what paperwork was necessary and how to prepare it for a Line of Duty, medical eligibility or compiling all the necessary information for a Commander’s Critical Information Requirements report.
“We want the SPLs to be aware of what we call the ‘behind the scenes’ work that they need to make sure gets done so the Soldier is taken care of, holistically from a military stand point, not just a mental health one,” said Bantner. “We emphasize in our training that every single case is different. There is no checklist of one size fits all. It all depends on the duty status of the Soldier, or on the location of the reserve Soldier, if they are in the middle of Montana or right next to a military treatment facility, if they’re on active duty orders or on a battle assembly status. It all depends if they had ideations or actually attempted (suicide). There’s no cookie cutter way to address it so we want to make sure that the SPLs are equipped with the knowledge of what they should look into for each case so they’re helping their command take care of Soldiers.”
Throughout the training, there were lighthearted moments and the trainers built a level of fun into the modules to help ease the reality of the training and learning how to go to that “dark place” with someone struggling. In the resources module, Gail Owen, from the 76th ORC, introduced a clown-like character named “Aunt Bertha”.
“We direct them to a website called Aunt Bertha, so (Owen) has brought “Aunt Bertha” to a live character with her bad make up and outfits,” chuckled Lopez. “She directs them to other websites and army resources that servicemembers can access and she even challenges them to look for their own resources within their own communities.”
Postvention, taught by Brion Pinkerton from the 4th ESC, and Sgt. 1st Class Hazael “Danny” Hernandez from the 3-383 Training Support Battalion, 85th USARSC, also helps with prevention. While postvention takes care of people after a suicide takes place, it also provides skills to prevent one.
“Postvention gives us the tools to empower those people who are victims to suicide instead of just hugging them and consoling them and telling them that they are going to be fine,” said Hernandez. “But no one ever thinks how the co-workers are impacted. When you lose a battle buddy, you’re so used to spending time with them and all of a sudden he or she is not there. It impacts the co-workers, the unit, the cohesion.”
Care for individuals was thought out thoroughly across the training to include wellness and selfcare of those providing support.
“You have to add in wellness and selfcare because the focus of the training module is that if we can’t take care of ourselves, and really allow ourselves to be ok with the trauma that we hear from our Soldiers, we’re not going to be able to take care of them,” said Navarro.
Leading off the conversation with opening remarks for the training were Brig. Gen. Susan Henderson, commander of the 4th ESC, and Brig. Gen. Ernest Litynski, commander of the 85th USARSC. Henderson elaborated on examples of various threats to Soldiers and mitigation measures to prevent them.
“What happens when the threat is not external, like enemy contact or preventable accidents? What about when the threat is internal? Suicide is an internal threat. Suicide is a choice that a Soldier makes that results in death. Just like enemy action that results in death and accidents that result in death. The Army has to take action to prevent death by suicide,” said Henderson, who worked 10 years in the mental health field and as a crisis counselor assessing people who survived suicide. “With enemy action and accidents, we can anticipate problems that might arise and mitigate them. With suicide, it’s a little bit harder. Suicide is private. Suicide is secret. People that commit suicide have decided that living, just living, just getting up in the morning, just eating breakfast is too painful.”
Litynski revealed his experiences that were on the opposite side of the spectrum from Henderson. His experiences included multiple stories losing fellow Soldiers and friends during overseas deployments, losing his daughter to a rare disease, and losing a close friend to suicide.
"I'm sharing my story a little bit," said Litynski, "and that story is that I have some mental health issues that I tackle every day. And I think mental health, coupled with other life factors and burdens, have a high propensity to contribute to suicide and fratricide in our formations. So I appreciate this opportunity here today. I just want to emphasize that you're doing the right thing in this constructive training and dialogue. Build connectiveness with others. Have them get help - there's no associated stigma. I've been sharing my story openly for over a decade - this is the way I heal and give back to others. Please do the same."
In executing what the Stand for Life team felt was a successful training event, Navarro shared that the virtual training almost did not take place, but they knew they had to make it happen after there was a completed suicide in one of their units.
“It was at the end of April,” said Navarro. “We had a completed suicide in April. It was concerning because most of our battalions, at that point, were conducting virtual battle assemblies, so our first attempt at doing a virtual postvention was at their BA. It was difficult because in my experience, we need to see our Soldiers so we can have good conversations and really connect with them. So now we are in a world where we have to connect virtually. So after that postvention, we decided that we still need to do a training.”
In the coming months, the team faced various challenges in how they would execute the training, how they would utilize the communication platform and how they would keep their audience engaged virtually.
“The entire goal was to, with this subject matter being so important, provide the best possible training to the participants because in their role as SPL for their respective units, they are going to take back the information that they learned (here) to their units,” said Richter. “We are teaching them how to train their Soldiers.”
Navarro added that although she began her first Stand for Life training event last year, the idea developed from her friend, Kelli Pfau, SPPM for the 451st ESC. But now the SPPMs collaborate to support each other and have plans to support each other as the various commands conduct their own SFL training events for their specific Soldiers.
“The process started almost five years ago. We knew we needed to do something. The question was how was going to look. We didn’t have a foundation for what it should look like. Where were we going to be able to get the funds? Where do we hold the training? All these were issues that we were faced with that we had to overcome. And hwo do we bring together great trainers and still project the same message,” said Pfau.
“Over time, our team developed a program and we knew that we could not be at every BA and get to know every Soldier. That has to happen at the unit level, and that’s when the liaison training was developed. Since that time, we have built a stronger network and a stronger passion, and we continue to be in contact with and train and care for our liaisons as if they were our own Soldiers. I’ve learned how to do that from leaders in the military, first line leaders.”
Pfau added that Stand for Life training uses some of the same skills as programs like Applied Suicide Intervention Skills training because it is good training but personnel were trained and then returned to their unit but no relationship was formed with the commander so commands didn’t know how to use them. People did not know to go to them if they were suffering. Stand for Life training is conducted to grow a network of SPLs that create a bond to retain skills and support one another.
“It works because the individual SPPMs each have different strengths that they are willing to bring to the table to make it exceptional. We cannot stove pipe this. We all have to come together, all of us,” said Pfau. “I’m very hopeful for the future.”