PINELLAS PARK, Fla. –
The Army Reserve Medical Command's command sergeant major told a gathering of roughly two dozen of the command's command sergeants major at the command's CSM Readiness Workshop held Nov. 29 through Dec. 1, his message to Soldiers contemplating suicide and all Soldiers in their formations is that their life matters.
“It's a life worth living—and that's what I would tell all of you when we get this message out,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Boudnik, who was the opening speaker at the command’s command sergeant major conference.
Boudnik said his key to saving a life threatened by suicide is making a personal connection.
“You have to get to the person that needs the help,” the former drill sergeant said. “Let them know a life is worth living, of getting into the space of the person that needs help.”
The Greenfield, Wisconsin, native said Soldiers also need to be bolstered in their own confidence and encouraged them to talk about their struggles. “You need the personal courage to come forward and say: “You know what? I need help.”
The command sergeant major said it is also essential to recognize when a Soldier is at his breaking point. "I'm helping a soldier, and this soldier seems desperate to me—I need to recognize when the Soldier is so desperate that it could take that Soldier over the edge.”
It means looking for the signals that the Soldier is about to break if they do not get a break.
“All they need is a break,” he said.
“Somebody can give them a break so they can say: ‘You know what? I can get to the next second, the next minute, the next five minutes, the next hour,’” he said.
Knowing your Soldiers well enough to recognize they need that break, and working with them is key, Boudnik said. “We'll get them through that matter,” he said. “It only takes a moment to help them make a choice, and that's what I need all of you to do.”
Boudnik said he and his commanding general Maj. Gen. W. Scott Lynn were taking a different approach to the traditional suicide prevention messaging because it has become ineffective.
“We want to personalize it,” he said.
“That’s why we're not going to be in uniform, and our rank's not going to be there,” he said. “It’s going to be Scott and Bob talking to the force.”
The plan is to break through the clutter to make a connection with a troubled Soldier. “We want to make a connection with that specialist, maybe that captain, whoever it may be that needs that resiliency and the personal courage to come forward to ask for help,” he said.
Vaughn: Always ask the troubled Soldier if they plan to kill themselves
Master Sgt. Frank Vaughn, a senior religious affairs services noncommissioned officer at the Army Reserve Medical Command, said he agrees that the idea of a more relaxed video from the command team would be more effective.
“I think the first thing we need to do with this issue is humanize it, and the best way to do that is to strip away the institutional representations of rank and authority and all of that and have real gritty conversations about this topic,” he said.
“We've seen too many videos of high-ranking officers and NCOs in their uniform--all knife-handing this issue,” he said. “I think that a commanding general and a command sergeant major in their own clothes, having a real heart-driven conversation about this would be a much more effective means of getting the attention of the rest of our formation.”
Vaughn said when Soldiers ask to sit down with him, he is always trying to key into signals that something could be wrong.
"I know enough about the human nature to be sensitive to the idea that they may be, if not actively considering suicide, at least at risk for considering suicide," he said.
“What we teach in the Ask.Care.Escort program is to just bluntly ask the question,” he said.
“If you're talking to somebody and you identify that they may be at risk for having suicidal ideations, then it's best to just point out the elephant in the room and ask the question, and we ask the direct question,” he said.
“We don’t say, ‘Are you considering hurting yourself? Because that was was the old way,” he said.
The master sergeant said he has asked the question many many times, and it always produces one of two possible results.
“It either calls out the obvious unspoken topic in the room or it jars that soldier into thinking: ‘Oh, I've been acting in certain ways that make people think I'm considering that I really need to pay attention to the unspoken vibe that I'm broadcasting,’” he said.
Vaughn said he offers a different venue for Soldiers because as a member of a chaplain corps, he is governed by the bond of confidentially.
“It either gives them permission to openly admit in a confidential format with a chaplain: ‘Yes, I'm considering suicide, or I have considered suicide,’ or it gives them a signal that people are picking up that vibe and they didn't necessarily mean for that to be the case,” he said.
Vaughn said sometimes an individual gives off a suicidal or alienated vibe without realizing it, and the suicide question jolts them into recognizing it.
"When a Soldier is down, and they're slumping their shoulders, and maybe their uniform's not as squared away as it normally is, and it's clear they're going through something," he said. "If you ask that direct question, then it really opens up avenues to help them get the help they need," he said.
In all the times the master sergeant has asked the direct question, it has never gone the wrong way, he said.
“I've asked the question, the Soldier’s kind of got a shocked look on their face, and then kind of this sort of relief washed over them: ‘We’re finally having the conversation I need to have,’” he said.
“I've had people come to me and admit to me after the fact, after they've gotten the help they need, and they're no longer in that place in their heads,” he said. “I've had them come back and tell me that they were within days of committing suicide when we had that conversation.”
Walser: Army Reserve Soldiers face unique challenges that threaten well-being
Joe Walser, who runs wellness and suicide prevention programs for the Army Reserve Medical Command, said his experience as an enlisted Soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division and later as a Marine infantry officer gives him a rank-and-file perspective on the suicide threat in the formations.
“I’m very familiar with what Soldiers go through,” he said.
Walser said he also appreciates the unique situation of Army Reserve Soldiers, who often deploy as cross-level personnel topping off another unit's roster or who live in another part of the country than their home station and miss out on the post-deployment fellowship more common with active-duty and National Guard units.
“When Army Reserve Soldiers deploy, they are connected,” he said. “They have a common goal. They all wear the same color, the same uniform in the Army.”
That all changes when they redeploy home, Walser said. “They come back, and that sense of camaraderie is just completely lost.”
Many individuals join the Army Reserve seeking a connectedness they cannot find in the civilian world, but the Army Reserve is a part of society, so it has the same challenges as society, he said.
“I know people join the Army Reserve to find a tribe to belong to and think that we just become a little more cog in disconnection--not on purpose,” the combat veteran said.
“We have a mission to do,” he said.
“We have lots of things going on, but I think in a series of disconnections from solid employment, disconnections from a faith community, disconnections from one another, and disconnections from a sense of purpose—that series of disconnections leads to a frailty,” he said.
“I don't think our culture has ever been more disconnected than it is right now.”