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101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)

Engagement key to reducing, preventing suicide

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Engagement key to reducing, preventing suicide

Fostering a culture of trust through personal engagement is key to the prevention of suicide.

Fort Campbell is one of three installations selected for the Army’s Suicide Prevention Pilot Program that is partnered with the Army Resilience Directorate. Ready and Resilient is the Army’s strategy for strengthening individual and unit personal readiness and fostering a culture of trust.

“Every Soldier is a valued member of the Army team and is essential to accomplishing the mission,” said Tiffany Simms, community Ready and Resilient integrator.

R2 reinforces the Army Values, beliefs and attitudes, and educates members of the Army team about the importance of building connections with each other, taking care of one another and being there to support fellow Soldiers. R2 covers more than suicide prevention, but the techniques used can equip Soldiers to withstand hard times.

The suicide prevention pilot program began here in January 2019, and placed R2 experts in units instead of aligning them with brigades. Master Resilience Trainer-Performance Experts, or MRT-Pes, worked hard on multi-echelon training as education is key to prevention.

Senior noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers received intense lectures on interpersonal and problem-solving skills needed to spot and help Soldiers in crisis. The training also focused on providing unit cohesion and promoting the right climate in a unit. Junior NCOs at the squad leader-level training focused on improving self-management, developmental skills, strength-based coaching and application. Junior troops learned how to engage during a crisis by practicing how to stop a fellow Soldier from drinking and driving or preventing a sexual assault from happening.

Unit cohesion and an excellent command climate is a primary goal of the Army. It is important that everyone has a since of belonging, especially high-risk Soldiers, typically first-term males between 20 and 29 years old. Unit cohesion is not just a good idea, it is essential for readiness.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Eric Leetch, 101st Abn. Div., believes the Army culture must be tribal in nature to succeed in building durable, strong teams. He believes it starts with the squad leader.

“The Army is a tribe linked by a common culture and value system,” Leetch said. “We are a Family you were not born into. And we take care of each other like a Family. Every member has an important and respected role. We look to the squad leader to make their squad tribal.”

The Department of the Army also sees the importance of the junior leader at the squad level and launched the “This is My Squad” campaign that focuses on the sergeant or the staff sergeant as the first-line of defense against high-risk behavior like suicide, sexual assault and driving under the influence.

“Soldiers should know they have a personal and Army responsibility to intervene when they witness high-risk behavior,” Simms said.

Staff Sergeant Bo Alberghini, division protocol NCO-in-charge, has a casual and organic approach to leadership. A member of Alberghini’s Family, who he never met, committed suicide, an event that continues to impact his Family today.

“If you know your Soldiers you will be able to tell if something is off without feeling like you are prying into their personal lives,” he said.

Alberghini admits spotting behavioral health problems may not be easy, as some early-term Soldiers may struggle with the discipline required to serve in the 101st.

“Be an NCO first, find out what the problem is,” Alberghini said, adding once you know the issue, it is easier to plot a path for help whether that’s getting the Soldier to 101st standards or sending him or her to behavioral health.

He also offers simple, philosophical advice for other squad leaders.

“Get to know your Soldiers outside of duty hours,” Alberghini said. “You should know them as people, not just as your Soldiers.”

Knowing your Soldiers, creates comfort, cohesion and trust.

“Trust takes time and won’t happen in one day,” said first-term Soldier, Pfc. John Vasquez, G-1 personnel actions. “If I were having problems, I would need to feel comfortable talking to my NCO about those problems. I don’t think I could do that with someone who didn’t know me.”

Soldiers will be open about their problems with leaders who they trust, Leetch said.

“Shared suffering is where bonding happens if done right at squad leader level,” he said. “As a culture, we are more isolated because of technology. So, it is a challenge to bond. What came naturally 15 years ago, takes effort now. It has to be done consciously and put on the training calendar.”

Senior leaders are responsible for the command climate and constantly look for ways to identify and stop high-risk behavior.

“Suicide ideations come into play when Soldiers are removed from their support systems and feel isolated,” said Capt. Matthew Visser, 40th Public Affairs Detachment commander.

Deployments and long training stints away from Family can be triggers. Leaders must develop a plan to augment support as interconnection is important.

“Suicides happen because of relationships,” Simms said. “It doesn’t have to be a relationship with a partner, it can be a dysfunctional relationship with the unit, Family member or friend.”

Leaders should use every tool available to prevent suicides and to ensure every Soldier in the unit knows about the resources available to them.

“Chaplains are relationship experts, use them,” Leetch said. “Everything you say to a chaplain is confidential.”

Engagement is vital to building a relationship of trust, Visser said.

“Winning matters but winning can’t occur without the people,” Visser said. “As leaders we must really be engaged when we ask Soldiers how they are doing – it should not be a social performance.”

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