FORT LEE, Va. – When a close friend committed suicide, a junior Army officer from Fort Lee, Va., opened her eyes to how active leadership and genuinely caring for fellow troops can help prevent suicide in the military.
Second Lt. Noelle Edinger was home on leave in Wyomissing, Pa., in late April when a close friend of hers ended his life and changed hers forever.
“You hear about it all the time, but when it’s close to home and somebody you actually know, the first thing you think is, ‘How could you?’ … They were supposed to be the first person you would call when you needed help. And then you realize that you never knew they were hurting that bad,” said Edinger, an adjutant officer with the 530th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion at Fort Lee.
Edinger last saw her friend two months before his suicide. She said its impact on her included an increased awareness of her surroundings when she returned to work.
“He was my buddy … I didn’t think the stuff he was going through was anywhere near as hard as what some of my Soldiers experience (during long training missions and deployments),” she said. “It made me more aware of the Soldiers around me and what they might be going through. And it made me realize that not every Soldier – not every person – handles stress and depression the same way. Not every Soldier shows it. And (the suicide) really taught me that just because they’re not showing it doesn’t mean they’re not having a bad day, or it doesn’t mean that they’re not having something going on at home.”
In the following months, Edinger – who received her commission in May 2011 – made meaningful conversations part of her daily routine as the leader of more than a dozen Soldiers in the battalion’s S-1 (human resources) shop.
“Being a leader in the Army is above and beyond just telling somebody to do something. Being a leader is getting to know your Soldiers, getting to know what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “It is your responsibility to know them inside and out, to be aware of what’s going on: Are they going through a hardship? Are they in debt? Has a family crisis just happened? Ask them about it.
“I like to talk to my Soldiers every day,” she said. “I ask them how they’re doing. If they’re having a particularly stressful day, I pull them into my office, close the door and say, ‘Speak freely.’”
Edinger said she’s even given her personal cell phone number to Soldiers experiencing hardships. Her message to them: “If you’re feeling bad, call me immediately. I have no problems day or night answering the phone.”
It’s the same offer Edinger got from Maj. Torrance Cleveland, her direct superior, when she returned from leave.
“She came to me and said she was having a hard time,” he said. They talked at some length before she finally told him about the suicide. “I told her that it’s OK to stop, take a moment and process it all; take some time to grieve.
“I also emphasized that she’s not by herself and she doesn’t have to feel alone,” Cleveland said. “It’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to cry, and it’s OK to have feelings.”
After talking some more, he gave Edinger the rest of the day off and told her to call if she needed anything.
“It takes more strength of character as a leader to ask for help than to hold it all in,” Cleveland said, adding that “she’s taken the lessons learned and shown (her Soldiers) that she genuinely cares.”
Edinger said maintaining that kind of awareness and demonstrating genuine concern is not solely a leadership responsibility, but one that should be shared by all Soldiers.
She stressed that it’s equally important from the senior officer level all the way down to the lower enlisted ranks. “Make sure you’re there for your battle buddies because when you’re away from home, that’s your family. If somebody all of a sudden reaches out and says, ‘Hey, can I talk to you?’ don’t blow them off. It may not seem like a cry for help to you, but for them, it may be,” she said.
In her battalion, Edinger said Soldiers encourage each other to seek help when facing issues like depression, which can lead to suicidal ideation. “I think some of the key points the Army is sending in regards to suicide prevention is that we’re recognizing that Soldiers do have problems … and while there has been stigma toward that, I do think that stigma is really downsizing now.”
She said Soldiers wouldn’t feel as judged if their peers encouraged them to seek help. “Soldiers can help eliminate stigmas by talking to their battle buddies and saying, ‘It’s OK to seek help. You’re going through a rough time and you’re not alone. Counselors can help you. Other Soldiers who have gone through it can help you. Seek the help.’”
That message echoes remarks by Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno in a public service announcement released as part of the Army Suicide Prevention Month observance in September: “If you think suicide is a solution to your problems, ask to see someone immediately. There is no shame in asking for help.”
Edinger said her personal experience with suicide was profound enough to shape her plans for the future. Her goal is to eventually “train up in suicide prevention” and become an advocate at schools, military posts and anywhere else she can help educate others on the issue.
“For those who’ve gone through and experienced losing someone to suicide, I know they’re more aware of suicide prevention,” she said. “But the biggest message that I can send is don’t wait for that point. Don’t wait until you lose somebody to suicide to start paying attention to the signs, to start paying attention to the training.
“Losing somebody to suicide isn’t something I’d wish on anybody, and it’s something that is completely preventable, if you pay attention,” Edinger said. “Take the training that the Army gives you and put it to good use … because you can use it to save a life.”