Maj. Larry Vanhook has spent most of his time during the past week responding to calls related to suicide.
“It’s a big problem,” the Fort Gordon chaplain said. “We have to do something.”
In response to rising national numbers of military suicides, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army vice chief of staff, ordered a “stand down” this week at Fort Gordon and other installations as part of a worldwide suicide prevention week. The Fort Gordon events started Monday and end Friday for military personnel and their families, and include sessions focused on suicide intervention and prevention.
“We have to shape the battlefield,” Vanhook said. “We have to shape the culture of the military.”
Vanhook, who has been a reserve and active-duty chaplain since 2000, said the goal of this week’s events is to educate and encourage soldiers. He said one way he thinks the military can change the culture is to focus on five things each soldier does well. Once those are established, constantly remind soldiers of those things.
“With confidence, soldiers are less likely to feel isolated, which is when the suicide thoughts are more likely,” he said.
Vanhook set up a booth Tuesday during the Community Health Fair at Freedom Park. He was surrounded by other booths with the same goal, to educate soldiers on their options before they consider suicide.
Fort Gordon’s Suicide Prevention Program manager, Dana Baldwin, said the week involves some mandatory events, which is a way for the installation to get aggressive about preventing suicide.
“We want to train them to see what’s going on before it gets bad,” she said. “We use stress-management techniques and other tools.”
Baldwin said Fort Gordon is active in suicide prevention all year, but some newer soldiers or newly married spouses might not be aware of the programs available. She said family members of military personnel frequently ask her to explain the signs of suicide.
“We have had over 1,000 people today,” she said. “A lot of them are new, and we want to educate them.”
She said if the soldiers took one piece of information away with them, she hoped they remembered to look out for one another.
“It’s a team effort,” she said.
Diane Sarber, of Fort Gordon’s Army Community Service, agreed that letting the soldiers know about the resources available to them is a big part of this week’s events.
Fort Gordon has two military and family life consultants, counselors who are not obligated to keep records of conversations.
“It gives the soldiers a little peace of mind to know the discussion they have will not be going directly back to their commanding officer and will haunt them for the rest of their careers,” she said.
Soldiers are also allotted 12 sessions with outside counselors. The anonymity of those situations can be very attractive. Baldwin said it does not matter where the soldiers seek help, only that they do.
“Bottom line, no matter how bleak it looks today, nothing is ever worth your life,” she said.