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Always Ask, It May Save a Life
When I was asked to write a blog about suicide awareness from my view as both a veteran with post-traumatic stress (PTS) as well as the spouse of a veteran with PTS who had suicidal ideations, I admit I didn’t know exactly where to start. Had I been asked to simply write about suicide awareness and prevention that would have been fairly easy, and straightforward. However, that’s not what I was asked to do. So I will try to convey my experiences.
I’d like to start by saying that I personally never contemplated suicide. The only reason I mention this, is because it’s important to demonstrate that having thoughts of suicide is not always a symptom of PTS. It could be due to something completely different. On the same token, PTS does not equal suicide, although many people think it does. In fact, I believe this was actually a factor leading to a delayed diagnosis of PTS for me. Now, I don’t know the reason, nor have I ever really thought about it.
While it is difficult to find exact percentages or risk rates for PTS patients that experience suicidal thoughts, it is widely known and accepted that there is certainly an increased risk. For me, it just never crossed my mind. I am grateful for that. The intrusive thoughts that often become overwhelming and lead to suicidal ideation were, and are, certainly present. I feel guilt, and shame, and anger. For me, though, I’ve always tried to “switch gears” when I became overwhelmed, and focus very hard on something else. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many.
My husband, who is also a combat veteran, did experience suicidal thoughts associated with his PTS. But, I wasn’t even aware of it until years later. How awful, right? I mean, I am supposed to be the one helping him and caring for him, and yet I missed the signs? Maybe he was really good at hiding them, or maybe I was too caught up in my own thoughts to think of asking him if he was okay, or having thoughts of suicide. I wonder, if my husband hadn’t had such a strong commitment to our family, would he still be here? Would I have been able to prevent a suicide attempt?
What all of this makes me realize, is that even though I knew my husband had PTS, and I had been through immeasurable hours of suicide prevention and awareness training over my 21 year Army career, I didn’t do the most basic thing for the most important man in my life. I never asked him. I could have. In fact I should have, even without any “outward signs” other than the fact that I knew he had PTS and was going though a lot of medical issues, to include TBI, speech and vision impairment and enduring the medical retirement process.
Now, I’d been trained for this, especially as a senior non-commissioned officer. If you know a soldier is facing adversity, whether it’s financial, medical, marital or PTS related, it doesn’t really matter. You’re supposed to sit down and have a candid, judgment free conversation. Maybe something like, “hey, I know you’ve been having a really tough time lately, is everything okay? Are you thinking of hurting or killing yourself, or anyone else?” They will usually tell you the truth, or so we’ve been told.
For some reason, I never asked my husband. I wonder if he’d have told me the truth. But despite all of the “would have/could have” scenarios, I did learn something, and I did become a better leader after learning that my own husband was once suicidal and I missed it.
What I learned is that no one is immune. So, always ask the question… it will not make a non-suicidal person suicidal. It will not “put the thought into their heads.” You are asking a simple question, not interrogating them. And when they tell you no, say “Good…I’m glad. I’ve been a little worried about you.” If they say yes, stay with them, and offer to take them to see someone they trust ... a counselor, doctor, friend, religious leader. Just don’t leave them. Stay with them, because you may have just saved a life.
Suicide doesn’t care about your age, gender, rank, status or wealth. It doesn’t care if you’re a Green Beret, Navy Seal, a cook , a medic, or a logistician. Suicide doesn’t care. And so, nor should we.
Sergeant First Class Kelly Rodriguez is from Dunkirk, New York. She joined the Army in 1996 shortly after graduating high school. Rodriguez served as an Army Combat Medic.
While deployed on a 12 month tour to Iraq in 2004, Rodriguez served as an Evacuation Sergeant and was "outside the wire" on convoys three to four days a week, often for eight to 12 hours per day, and many times even longer. Rodriguez treated multiple casualties on several occasions, always due to IED attacks on her convoys. In 2006 in Afghanistan, she and six other soldiers fended off an attack by a Taliban force of more than 35 enemy personnel. During this firefight, Rodriguez earned recognition for treating the wounded during the multi-hour battle.
During her 21 year career, Rodriguez deployed more than five times. On all of her combat tours, she served as a medic on the front lines of combat. While in Afghanistan for a year, she and her ten-man team saw approximately 385 surgical patients in 2010. The trauma Rodriguez witnessed was punctuated by the fact that both her husband was also serving at the time, with both of them eventually being diagnosed with PTS. Now, their eldest son is serving as an Airborne Infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division. He already has his first combat tour completed, undoubtedly with more to come.
Rodriguez has found that the combination of intensive counseling, continued service, volunteering with non-profits, and mentoring junior soldiers have helped her effectively address her PTS. Her husband, Michael, now a retired veteran, has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, multiple traumatic brain injuries, and a myriad of other injuries. After Michael participated in the 2015 W100k, he shared his love of mountain biking with her and they now spend time together riding and reconnecting with one another.
Today, Rodriguez is working as a mortgage banker with The Federal Savings Bank and resides in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is still passionate about service and enjoys helping people, especially fellow veterans achieve the dream of home ownership. Rodriguez’ new career also affords her the flexibility to volunteer more in her community, which she truly enjoys. She and her husband have three sons, each of whom are incredibly selfless young men with a true understanding of servant leadership.Full Bio
Mental Health Awareness Month
May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness and reduce stigma, particularly for veterans and the invisible wounds of war. Members from the Bush Institute’s Warrior Wellness Alliance offered their perspectives throughout the month to discuss what they wish more civilians understood about veteran mental health, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. They also discussed how everyone can help get more warriors the care they need. Check out their videos below.
How a Community in New Orleans is Helping Veterans Transition
Dylan Tête, Executive Director and Founder, Bastion Community of Resilience will receive the George W. Bush Institute Military Service Citation at the Bush Center's Forum on Leadership.
Creating a Global Veteran Community
Deputy Director of Military Service Initiative Kacie Kelly recently spoke at an international veterans’ mental health conference: “Evidence, Innovation, and Practice” hosted by Kings College London and the Forces in Mind Trust Foundation.