Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure

*Retold with permission.

When the Army released their latest suicide prevention program several months ago, I and other chaplains throughout the Army were sent out to ensure that all personnel received exposure to the new material. Frankly, it’s the best program I’ve ever seen, and it really helps Soldiers (myself included) identify potential concerns and address them before they develop into something more dire. It also gave me an unexpected glimpse into the different mindsets between various MOSs [military occupational specialties] in the military. They view things through very different lenses.

This particular suicide prevention program is unique in that it’s essentially a “choose your own adventure.” Soldiers watch a video introducing characters and situations, and as the plot progresses, they are asked at what point they would consider the Soldier’s behavior concerning, and how they would respond to it (if at all). Depending on their choices, they are shown one scenario or another. Ideally, Soldiers quickly identify the characters in need of counseling, and make an informed, careful choice to best help them. The intent is to prevent conditions that could encourage a Soldier to consider suicide, and quickly intervene when a problem is spotted. For the most part, they do quite well.

From my observation, support units are very savvy in promptly identifying problems and working to rectify them. When we went through the videos, in fact, that wanted to intervene before the program even offered it as an option. They were sharp, and after running through the whole course with them, I was confident that a troubled or unduly stressed Soldier would not escape rapid discovery in their units. It was relieving.

Artillery units also performed similarly well, though admittedly they weren’t as insistent on early intervention as were the support units. Still, however, I left confident that they would quickly handle any situations within their ranks. Like the support Soldiers, they had an eye to recognize a potential danger.

But then there were the infantry guys. Only one platoon was bluntly honest with me, while the rest told me “what I wanted to hear,” no doubt to get the presentation over with as soon as possible. But the honest platoon’s responses were surprising, and not something I’m entirely certain I understand just yet.

As they watched the videos and were presented with options for the next step, they told me what they believed OUGHT to happen, but then also told me would happen in reality. The two were radically different, too. I remember even giving them a chance to change their minds. “Are you SURE this is what would realistically happen in this situation?” Yes, they said, so we proceeded with the less-than-preferred option. They usually chose to ignore the problem.

To make a long story short, the end result was that their character did not receive any of the treatment he needed, and wound up brain dead and wheelchair bound from a failed suicide attempt. They universally agreed that this would be the most likely outcome. The guy wasn’t going to get help from his peers or leaders.

I’ve put a great deal of thought into why this is, and also why their responses varied so drastically from those of the support and artillery Soldiers. The conclusions I’ve reached are only tentative, at best.

Unlike the rest of the Army, infantry troops are relatively unforgiving of their peers, their subordinates, and themselves. It is well-known, and often stated, that their job is to kill people and break things. In their own minds, this requires a high level of fortitude, toughness, and immunity to stress and personal problems. Those who whine too much are told simply to “suck it up.” After all, it was they who selected infantry. Nobody strong-armed them into doing it.

While better judgment may suggest that a Soldier needs to get some help, he is often told to deal with it. To admit overwhelming stress is to admit weakness – a trait that has no place in the ranks of infantry. It is, above all over areas of the Army, a machismo culture. They aren’t susceptible to emotion; it’s simply not part of their job description. They may know how to best help a Soldier, but they are more likely to tell him to grow up, stop complaining, stop acting weak, and do his job. Tough guys aren’t supposed to shatter.

The next question is how I can best reach these men, or how anybody can reach them, for that matter. Considering their decreased likelihood to identify troubled Soldiers, they deserve more attention. Especially since they, perhaps above all over MOSs, face exposure to greater stress, tragedy, and carnage. Thankfully, I have a few ideas.

The company commander here has joked about what he refers to as my “cigarette ministry,” which is little more than approaching a lone, unspeaking Soldier and asking to bum a smoke from him. He quickly hands me one, and I sit with him. Somehow, in their minds, I’m not actually counseling them if we’re both smoking. I don’t claim to understand it, but I know it works.

The best response distills to this: build a personal relationship with these men. Talk to them and present myself as approachable, which begins with the personal relationship. I also work to overcome the assumption that they’re hard infantry Soldiers and I’m a soft chaplain who will never understand them. It means face time, joining in their activities, smoking a cigarette or two, and developing a level of immunity to their infamous profanity.

And in truth, it doesn’t bother me. I’m developing a thick skin. These men are my charges, obviously, and I enjoy my time out there with them. They’re by all means a rare breed. It is my hope that, in time, they will understand that getting help isn’t weakness, but a demonstration of boldness and strength. It is also unnatural to NOT have some degree of struggle with what they do and see out here. Until this happens, though, I’ll just keep choking down cigarettes. The Soldiers are far more important to me, to the Army, and to the country.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. Great interview! I don't know how you do it, but you continue to come up with good stuff.

    Well articulated and good presentation. Forgetting the content, which was wonderful, it really provided insight.

    You are on to something, Grasshopper. Stay with it.

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    Bill Wilson