The month of June is PTSD Awareness Month and June 27th is National PTSD Awareness Day.
Trigger Warning For All Readers: Before proceeding reading this article, please note it outlines the experience, of Veteran Voices For Fibromyalgia founder Kristal Kent, when she provided suicide crisis intervention support, to a fellow Army Soldier.
It was the Thursday before Labor Day weekend in September of 2000 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It was hot and humid. The kind of heat and humidity that sucks the breath out of your lungs. Despite working in the Infirmary at the Fort Leonard Wood Army Hospital, the air conditioning was of no use against the heat and humidity. I sat at the Infirmary Desk as droplets of sweat drew a watery line from my head, zig zagging the slope of my neck, creating a trail of sweaty tears down my back. This was Fort Leonard Wood in a nutshell, or as it is often called “Fort Misery” or “Fort Lost in the Woods.” There was no reprieve from the weather, there was nothing of comfort on that base. It was just hot and humid. The cultural attitude was also hot. Each base has its own “attitude.” Fort Leonardwood’s attitude seemed to be cultivated out of the incessant heat and isolation from any other human occupied places. The military personnel at Fort Leonardwood tended to be cantankerous, aloof, and infused with the whole “I don't give a f*ck” attitude.
As I sat at the Infirmary desk contemplating the abyss of never-ending nothingness at Fort Leonardwood, I decided to go use the latrine because I had nothing better to do. For those who are not military or a veteran, latrine is just another word for bathroom. Going to the latrine was my best course of action. I could splash cold water on my face and soak my head to cool off. I turned to my Infirmary colleague 2nd Lieutenant Daniels, told him I was going to use the latrine, and asked if he wanted me to bring back coffee. “Butter Bar” Daniels gave me the side-eye and declined the coffee offer because, well you know, it was hot as hades at Fort Leonardwood that day. Again, for those who are not military or a veteran, using the term “butter bar” is reference to the Army rank of Second Lieutenant, which happens to be a single vertical gold bar, hence "butter bar."
The Infirmary at Fort Leonardwood Army hospital was on the 4th floor, tucked between the in-patient psychiatric wing behind the infirmary, and in front of the Infirmary, a vast hallway of empty hospital rooms. In between the Infirmary and empty hospital patient rooms, were the bathrooms. The bathrooms are separated by gender. To get to the women's restroom, you had to walk past the men's restroom. So off I went, wandering down the hall towards the restrooms. As I was coming upon the men's restroom, I could hear scuffling and loud jagged, raspy breathing. It sounded as if someone was having a major asthma attack or a cardiac issue. So, I knocked on the door and asked if the person was OK. I did this several times without response, yet the scuffling noises and raspy breathing could still be heard. I determined the person inside the men's bathroom was having a medical emergency, so I yelled down the hospital hallway for 2nd Lieutenant Daniels. Waiting for 2nd Lieutenant Daniels to arrive, I continued to knock and kick the bathroom door trying to figure out a way to get in. It would be no easy feat getting into the bathroom because the door was metal with an interior deadbolt. 2nd Lieutenant Daniels arrived on scene and concurred someone was having a medical emergency in the men's bathroom. At this point 2nd Lieutenant Daniels took over trying to find a way to open the door and I contacted both hospital maintenance and security. I explained the emergency to maintenance and security, and requested they come immediately with the master key.
By the time maintenance and security arrived it had been about 7 minutes since I came upon someone struggling in the men's bathroom. Neither the hospital security nor hospital maintenance staff had a master key to unlock the door. Shaking my head at the ludicrously of no one having a master key, I proceeded to contact the military police. While waiting for the military police (MP’s) to arrive, we could still hear the individual in the bathroom. However, the scuffling was lessening, and the ragged breathing was shallow. The MP 's arrived about 10 minutes later with a metal battering ram. After about five or six tries, the MP's were able to bust open the bathroom door. It was at that moment we all realized the person locked in the bathroom was not experiencing an asthma attack or cardiac issue. The individual was a young Army Soldier, who decided to end his life that day…
AGAIN! TRIGGER WARNING: Before reading further, note that some of the details of the scene, self-harm, and the Soldier’s attempt to end their life will be briefly explained.
Once the MP’s busted open the bathroom door, carnage ensued. The MP’s started screaming… Screaming at the Soldier in the bathroom. They were not screaming to identify the needs of the Soldier struggling. Instead, they were screaming “what the f*ck Soldier,” and “you’re ate up for doing this” and “you’re a disgrace to your uniform.” 2nd Lieutenant Daniels and I pushed through, and we both gasped simultaneously. Before us was a young Soldier, laying on the floor of the bathroom stall, who had tied the laces of his boots around his neck. Further, there were streaks of blood everywhere. The Soldier had used a razor to cut himself as well. 2nd Lieutenant Daniels pushed back the MP’s, and on autopilot and instinct, I went into the bathroom stall where the Soldier laid and started to cut off the boot laces from his neck. The Soldier’s face was turning blue; his lips were a chalky light grey. While removing the boot laces and checking his pulse, I simply spoke words of reassurance to the Soldier. I don’t recall everything I said, but I do remember stating: “I am so sorry you did not have the support you needed.” At this point, the MP’s called for medical staff and 2nd Lieutenant Daniels reprieved me. I went to speak with medical staff about the situation, about what measures were taken to intervene, and the current medical status of the Soldier. While I recount this from memory, in my mind it exists like a slow-motion scene in a Hollywood movie. In reality, it was a fast sequence of actions, to swiftly and effectively support the Soldier.
When the crisis was over, and the soldier was stabilized, everyone involved kept stating how I saved this Soldier’s life and deserved a commendation for my actions. However, it did not want any recognition. This was by no means a moment of triumph. It felt more like a moment of defeat... I did not feel then, nor do I feel now, that I did anything heroic. I simply did my job…
For the next few weeks this experience lurked in the corners of my mind. I could feel shadowy fingers of anger trying to escape my subconscious and invade my consciousness. I was not angry at the Soldier; my anger was specifically towards the MP’s and their lack of understanding and demoralizing statements towards the Soldier. My anger was directed at the hospital maintenance and security staff who did not have a Master Key. My anger was towards a military system that lacked compassion, understanding, support and assessment tools for those military personnel experiencing suicidal ideations. My anger was towards the chains of command who, instead of helping Military members seek mental health support, they lived by the mantra of "suck it up," which permeated the atmosphere. This type of attitude seemed impenetrable and deterred Military personnel from seeking mental health care.
Mind you, this happened in September of 2000. We had less understanding back then of mental health, PTSD, and the risk of suicide among military members. As I write this, I would like to say that 23 years later, we are doing better with our understanding and support of our military members and veterans alike. However, the fact that 22 veterans are dying daily by suicide, is evidence we are not doing much better than in 2000. Further, the pervasive stigma surrounding PTSD and suicide risk still prevails today. I will circle back to this point later in this article.
At this point, you may be asking what happened to the Soldier… Remember when I outlined earlier the inpatient psychiatric ward was behind the Infirmary at Fort Leonardwood army hospital? Well, this soldier did survive this attempt of suicide. After he was medically cleared, he was then hospitalized in the in-patient psychiatric wing, which was directly behind the Infirmary. Now, when I state the in-patient psychiatric ward was behind the Infirmary, all I had to do was step in the hallway, and I could see the doors to the psychiatric in-patient wing. The doors had wire mesh glass windows. The patients could walk to the doors and look down the hall. Any time when I stepped out into the hall, I would see the Soldier who attempted suicide, pacing, and looking through the hospital door windows. The Soldier would become very agitated when he would see me. Due to "Duty to Report" laws the in-patient psychiatric team informed me the Soldier vocalized threats of harm and death towards me. The Soldier was very angry and dealing with a turmoil of extreme emotions and despair and projecting his anger towards me. However, I was not upset with the Soldier expressing statements of harm towards me. To alleviate the Soldier's stress and minimize his anger and expressions of harm towards me, I was reassigned to a Basic Training CQ (headquarters) desk job. Basically, I answered phone calls, and on a rare occasion, assisted anyone who came into the office. It was the most boring, desolate duty assignment. While I did not enjoy this duty assignment, if it helped the Solder who was struggling with mental health and suicidal ideation, I was fine with being reassigned to a different job.
After being reassigned to a new job, I no longer received updates about the Soldier, nor do I know what happened to him. To this day I do not know if he was able to overcome his invisible wounds. I do not know if his mental health stabilized. I do not know if he was able to continue serving in the Army, or if he was medically discharged due to his suicide attempt. Nor do I know if he ever attempted again to end his life. To this day, I do not know if he is alive or not. Not knowing what ever happened to this Soldier, my Brother in Arms, has always been unsettling for me. What I do know is, I hope he received the mental health care and support he needed and is living a fulfilling life.
Now I circle back to ongoing mental health stigma and how this compounds suicide risk and PTSD.
We, as a society, have a very poor track record of supporting and assisting individuals with mental health conditions, and those at risk of suicide. Moreover, it is still commonplace to hear or read people diminish the seriousness of PTSD, feelings of suicide, and attempts of suicide. In the military and veteran community, the term “suck it up and drive on” is ingrained in our psyche. The problem with this mentality is it disregards the human element of emotions and mental well-being Further, while well meaning, I often read/hear statements, by fellow veterans who struggled with suicidal ideation, such as: “if I can overcome my struggles with suicidal thinking, so can you!” Not only are statements like this ableist, but such statements also subliminally diminish a person’s struggles with mental health and suicidal thoughts/plans. It also assumes an individual’s experiences are universal to everyone else. We seem to forget our experiences are unique, and the circumstances that lead to a person developing PTSD or contemplating suicide are often multiple, complex variables. Example, one veteran may have a strong family, friend and/or peer support system which supports them with overcoming their mental health struggles. Meanwhile, another veteran with similar circumstances may not have any support systems. One veteran may be of good physical health while another veteran is not. One veteran may be financially stable while another is contending with financial hardship. So on and so forth. The point here is making conclusive statements, while intended to be “inspiring” often negates personal experiences and the barriers they are living with. Instead of the whole “if I can do it, you can do it too" mentality, let us re-frame these types of statements and say: “here is how I overcame my struggles contemplating suicide.”
We also need to do better with our active reading and active listening skills. Too often I read on social media of a veteran struggling with PTSD or suicidal ideation. Within the comments section, people will write “you got this!” or “if you need anything just reach out!” or “you are not alone!” The problem is the person is already reaching out by stating they're not doing well, and they feel isolated and alone. Many a times, they are not in a place in which they feel like they “got this.” Also, when we tell someone to “just reach out,” we are inadvertently creating an additional burden for the person who is already struggling. Meaning, they are already in crisis or do not feel stable/safe. Thus, we are creating an additional burden on a person who has already expressed their need for support, by telling them to reach out (again). Typically, the person already feels like a burden, they do not want to be a burden to others, and it took all their strength to admit they are struggling. So, let's meet them halfway... Let us reach out to them!
When someone is struggling, we need to be more conscious of our choice of words of support. We should say things like “How can I support you?" “Are you in need of resources?” “I just messaged you” or “I'm calling you now.” I know on these social media platforms and groups forums people do privately message or call the person to support them. I've done Unfortunately, the message we convey with our social media comments, while well intended, is a passive form of support. I also know many people do not know what to say in these types of situations, so it is important we know where to reference resources and supports, to offer the person in crisis. VVFF has its' own resource page that you can share with others. So, if you or someone you know, is in need of resources or support, please visit Veteran Voices For Fibromyalgia’s resource hub for mental health support, suicide prevention support, chronic pain support, and/or Fibromyalgia support: Resources & Support | My Site (veteranvoicesforfibromyalgia.com)
While these seem like contrite suggestions, reframing our thought processes around PTSD and suicide, breaking ongoing pervasive societal stigmas, and letting go of judgmental overtones, we just may “unknowingly” save a person’s life.
One final point: Sharing your life experiences could be the key to unlocking someone’s personal prison because your Book of Life may become another person’s Survival Guide.
Peace, Love and Light,
Kristal at Veteran Voices For Fibromyalgia and The Fibromyalgia Pain Chronicles
Article written by Kristal Kent ©VVFF2023