The tough part covering this week’s suicide stand down at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Soldier 360 leadership retreat for noncommissioned officers was knowing I couldn’t include all the forthright observations service members were sharing about the health of the force.
“I don’t think they expected this (period of war) to go this long, and they didn’t have a plan,” said one burly noncomissioned officer at the Soldier 360 retreat.
He shared with his peers his frustration at finding an Army doctor who would hear him out about his anger management issues without handing him a prescription for medication he didn’t want. He fired his doctor, and eventually found one who’d help him cope without pills.
“You have the feeling you don’t belong here,” the soldier said.
The troops at Soldier 360 got to speak in a shorthand about what it’s like to come home after spending a year or more at war. They talked about being irritated with civilians who don’t appreciate the comforts of American life, and the challenges they face guiding less experienced soldiers through their transitions to life at home.
Several of them said they felt more comfortable in war zones, where they had established routines and adrenaline to carry them through their days. Walking through a grocery store presented entirely different challenges for them.
“Even though you’re in chaos over there (at war), it’s a controlled chaos,” another senior noncommissioned officer said. “All sorts of things can go on, but it’s what you want. When you’re out of it, in a store, you can’t control any of it.”
One soldier’s advice: People watch at the store and laugh to yourself at shoppers who look ridiculous. That helped him get over his anxiety at Wal-Mart.
Glen Wurglitz, one of the Army psychologists Lewis-McChord brought in to lead Soldier 360, encouraged the soldiers to be patient with themselves and with the troops they lead.
“You can’t just dial of these processes that make you, you,” he said, hitting his body to demonstrate that the feelings the soldiers expressed are normal reactions.
He joked that civilians can make soldiers feel displaced, “What’s the problem, you’ve been home a week?”
Instructors used different classes and exercises to encourage the participants to show empathy for their soldiers, stressing that welcoming someone to a unit on their first day could set the tone for that soldier’s entire experience in the Army. This week, they wrote life goals for themselves and talked about how to improve their relationships at home, too.
The messages they took were somewhat softer than a sergeant might yell to a group of soldiers. The participants said they were ideal for one-on-one discussions with their troops.
“When you come back from a deployment, you can tell your soldier there’s a different way of handling this,” said Sgt. Thomas Hollis of Lakewood.
In my lead to the story we published Thursday, I mentioned the earful Vicki Duffy gets when she asks soldiers what they think of when they hear the words “suicide prevention.” Here’s the list she made from the troops at the Soldier 360 retreat.
PowerPoints; briefings; annoying; useless; mandatory; “one person ruins it for the rest of us;” knee jerk, routine; “you’re taking up my time when I could be someplace else;” same old, same old; unneeded until it’s too late, uninformed.
Duffy then had the soldiers make a list of words they associate with “leadership.” They offered words like motivator, coach, responsibility and care taker.
She tore the tops off both sheets and swapped them, revealing positive definitions for suicide prevention that demonstrate the personal touch she encourages soldiers to take with each other.
Under leadership? See all those stale words soldiers associated with suicide prevention.
Also this week: The nonprofit organization Stop Soldier Suicide passed through Joint Base Lewis-McChord on a cross-country motorcycle tour. We’ll have a short piece in tomorrow’s newspaper. It’s a veteran group that aims to provide soldiers with counseling opportunities outside of their chain of command.