It is arguably one of the worst things a deployed Soldier can receive: a Red Cross message. The messages notify commands that a Soldier in their unit has a family member who is either sick, or in the worst case, dead.
Sgt. 1st Class Roy Dillard received the message while deployed to Afghanistan that his brother-in-law had committed suicide, leaving Dillard’s twin sister and her 6-month-old son alone.
He rushed home on emergency leave to be with them. His said the initial sadness he felt at the loss of his brother-in-law quickly mingled with anger.
“I thought it was very selfish that he just left his wife and new son by themselves for the rest of their lives. His son will never get the chance to meet his father,” said Dillard, who serves as the operations noncommissioned officer in charge of the Fort Bliss, Texas-based 127th Aviation Support Battalion.
Part of that anger stemmed from the fact that his brother-in-law felt he couldn’t talk to anyone about the problem, and in the end, believed taking his life was the only solution, Dillard said.
“There were just so many people that were there, and I felt that I was very close to him and that he could tell me anything,” Dillard said. “Oftentimes he did talk to me about a lot of stuff that he never talked to anybody else about.”
After the deployment ended and Dillard and his unit returned home, he sought behavioral health support for deployment-related issues, but the topic of his brother-in-law’s suicide came up during counseling. During the sessions the doctors observed that the more he talked about it, the better he felt, Dillard said. They suggested that when he was able to talk about it with others he should use it as a teaching tool.
“I took their advice, and when I became a first sergeant of a company, that’s when I started using that tool, teaching Soldiers about some of the flags and the effects (suicide) can have on … the survivors left behind,” Dillard said. He has worked hard to be at the forefront of reducing the stigma associated with seeking help alongside the Army’s programs, such as the Ready and Resilient Campaign.
It is a comprehensive and collaborative effort to increase total force readiness, and the suicide prevention program has become a key element of the Ready and Resilient Campaign program portfolio, said Gabrielle Tyler, chief of the Army Suicide Prevention Program at the Pentagon. Part of its goal is to reduce cultural stigmas and institutional barriers that prevent people from seeking help.
As part of institutionalizing resilience, she said, leaders and experts are telling Soldiers that resilience and seeking assistance are signs of strength, and that supporting those in need of help is an Army value. In addition, other changes have included co-locating behavioral health facilities in primary care facilities, as well as senior leaders promoting help-seeking behaviors.
While institutional changes can be made quickly, “cultural changes take a little longer to materialize, because there are many factors that shape our perceptions, so it’s an ongoing process,” Tyler said.
Dillard is a strong believer in having an open dialog with Soldiers as a leader at the company, and as an individual.
As a first sergeant, he made it a priority to hold weekly conversations during formations to talk about suicide and suicidal ideations, whether those stemmed from multiple deployments, post-traumatic stress disorder (either from deployment or another traumatic event), or from an event that occurred before they joined the Army. The most important thing, he emphasized, was to seek help. There was no shame in needing or seeking it.
“No matter what, there is always someone to talk to, whether it be another coworker, a first sergeant and commander, a supervisor or even a best friend. Sometimes just talking with someone helps, but if you need to go to a professional that is not a bad thing,” Dillard said. “I think just talking about it often removes the stigma about it being bad.”
When Soldiers come to Dillard for help or tell him they are having problems, he shares the story of his brother-in-law to help build trust, he said. “By sharing something personal with them, it opens that door that ‘Hey, I’m not just your supervisor or your first sergeant, but that I’m also here as a friend if you ever need help.’ Sharing those personal stories helps them know that you’re not superhuman and things happen in your life as well.”
Because Dillard had worked so hard to engage his Soldiers and remove the stigma, he was in the right place to help a Soldier who he needed it the most. Dillard received a call on his cell phone in the middle of the night from one of the NCOs in his company who told him he was having disturbing thoughts.
“I asked him ‘What do you mean by disturbing thoughts?’” Dillard recalled. The Soldier told him he didn’t know what to do anymore and he didn’t feel like being here.
“(Here) in the unit, or are you thinking about killing yourself?” Dillard asked him.
The Soldier indicated it was the latter.
Dillard asked, “When?”
“Tonight,” the Soldier told him,
Alarmed and concerned for the Soldier’s safety, Dillard, while still talking to the Soldier, immediately picked up his home phone and contacted another NCO living in the barracks, instructing him to stay with the Soldier until he could get there.
“That way, from that time I was leaving my house to go to him, there was no room for him to do anything to himself.”
After going through the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, Dillard said the instructors work hard to instill the confidence to not be afraid to ask the question. Since the Soldier had been drinking, Dillard said he couldn’t afford any kind of confusion or grey area. “I thought it was very important to not beat around the bush and just be up front.”
Once Dillard arrived, he sent the other NCO away, and began to talk to the Soldier to find out what was happening. Dillard said he never found out the exact reason for his suicidal ideations, but when Dillard asked him if he wanted help, the Soldier answered yes.
“I could see that he didn’t want to feel that way and he wanted help,” Dillard said.
Because the Soldier had been drinking, he was afraid that the Soldier might not respond as well to the on-call psychologist if they went to the emergency room. He decided to stay with the Soldier until the behavioral health clinic at the hospital opened in the morning. The next day, the Soldier was evaluated and admitted to Fort Bliss’ William Beaumont Army Medical Center Behavioral Health Ward for three months. Dillard visited the Soldier weekly to see how he was doing and was there when he was released.
It was important to Dillard to be there from start to end. He didn’t want the Soldier to be passed off from one person to another then another: “I put myself in his shoes. If I was going through that, I wouldn’t want somebody to keep pawning me off on somebody else, because I would feel (like) more of a burden to everybody (rather) than them actually wanting me to get help.”
In reaching out to Dillard, the Soldier had put a lot of faith in his NCO, and Dillard said, “I felt that he had a tremendous amount of trust in me.”
People seeking help go to the ones they trust or are comfortable with, which could be a supervisor, a chaplain or the commander, and “that is why the Army pushes for leadership from top down to develop relationships with their Soldiers and with their civilians, to increase this help-seeking behavior,” Tyler said.
The Army recognizes that the military focuses on Soldiers being tough and self reliant, which can create a barrier to Soldiers reaching out. “Those in need may fear that others look at them as weak,” Tyler said.
That was one of the reasons Dillard’s Soldier waited so long to seek help.
“What I kind of put together is he felt he could handle it on his own and that he didn’t want people to look at him differently,” Dillard said. “He was a sergeant. He felt that if people and Soldiers knew about some of the troubles he was having it might compromise his leadership position and his, I guess, authority as a leader in the platoon.”
Although, the Soldier ended up leaving the service at the end of his contract he had new priorities. He wanted to continue his education and be there for his parents and younger siblings.
“I believe that when his family found out they were pretty hurt and devastated. They felt that their own son couldn’t tell them something that was going on in his life that was bothering him (and) led him to the point that the only thing he could do was take his own life,” Dillard said. “Now, he’s not only living a life, he’s living a more positive life and … now he’s a closer son to (his) parents.”
Tyler said that resilience and the relationships Soldiers form are important. “The more that we know about each other, the better we are equipped to handle a colleague’s or a friend’s or battle buddy’s call for help. Relationships are the gateway to ensuring the required help is received.”
If you or someone you know needs help, it’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the Military Crisis Line. Call 1-800-273-8255 or text to 838255.