Walk brings light to dark subject of suicide in the military
Posted to: Military
© September 11, 2009
Jon Greene knows he might choke up when he reads aloud a certain name Saturday at Mount Trashmore.
He lost Scott Alan Starr, a friend and colleague, to suicide in August 2008. Greene was the commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dam Neck; Starr worked closely with him.
Greene and other volunteers will read the names of more than 100 people who took their own lives in the past year as part of the Out of the Darkness Community Walk.
The walk, in its fourth year, brings together scores of people – more than 900 have registered so far – and is one of the largest of its kind in the United States. It's sponsored by the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group.
Some walk in memory of a friend or loved one. Others come because they know what it's like to suffer from depression.
"I can't save Scott, but I think there are lots and lots of folks in the military with lots and lots to offer the world… who don't realize that depression can be treated," Greene said.
Diagnosable depression is a factor in 90 percent of all suicides, according to Chris Gilchrist, a Chesapeake social worker and one of the event's organizers.
Starr was the model Navy chief petty officer, Greene said: strong, intelligent, well-respected, caring. A father figure to hundreds of young sailors.
He first worked for Greene as senior enlisted adviser at the surface warfare center. After retiring in 2007, Starr returned to Dam Neck as a civilian employee.
"He was very proud," Greene said. "And very private."
Starr attempted suicide last summer. Medication and counseling followed. He returned to work a month later.
When Greene checked on him, Starr's response was always the same: "I'm doing great," he would say.
"He was the master chief. He was in charge; he was in control. There were no cracks in his facade," Greene said.
Greene set up automatic reminders on his computer so he wouldn't forget to check in with Starr. One of them popped up on Aug. 17. But the day got busy, and Greene didn't get to it.
In his office early the next morning, Greene's phone rang. It was a friend of Starr's calling from Iraq.
Scott had shot himself hours earlier, at home in Virginia Beach. He died within a few miles of base – yet word of his death came to Greene from someone thousands of miles away.
"I really didn't believe it," Greene said in a recent interview, pausing and looking up at the ceiling, trying to remember the moment. "It was absolutely surreal."
After getting the news, Greene shifted into "commanding officer mode." There were arrangements to deal with, colleagues to tell, a memorial service to plan. The rituals helped. But Greene was unsettled. He couldn't help feeling that the military standard of suffering without complaint might have doomed his friend.
Gilchrist and Greene's wife, also a social worker, helped him understand that suicide is a medical matter, not a moral one.
Gilchrist noted that suicide is a major medical issue – 32,000 people take their own lives annually, she said. It is the 11th leading cause of the death in the United States.
After years of war, the military has gotten better at teaching service members about post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health.
Generals and admirals talk about the spike in suicides and are trying to address it. Earlier this year, the Army ordered a massive safety stand-down to reach out to soldiers. The Navy has its own program for spreading the message that it's OK to ask for help.
But Greene, who's now retired from the Navy, knows that rank-and-file sailors don't always buy the message mouthed by military brass at the Pentagon.
"There are a lot of good things going on in the military. I think there's a willingness to do something," Greene said. "But fundamentally, it comes to the culture."
And that culture is action-oriented, goal-driven and full of people who think "I'll just power through this. I can hack it," he said.
"There are a lot of folks in the military – including some relatively senior folks – who still see suicide and depression as a shameful choice. I think there needs to be recognition by a lot of folks, specifically the leadership, that you can't hack it. Sometimes you need a little help."
Starr expected himself to be perfect. "He felt he had to live at this ideal, this standard he'd set for himself," Greene said.
That's part of the reason Greene invited Gilchrist to talk about suicide with leaders at the surface warfare center. And it's part of the reason he put up a large sign on base, publicizing Saturday's walk.
"There are so many people worried about the damage that will be done to their career if they get help from military medicine," Greene said.
He acknowledged that there are obstacles, but even within the military's constraints, there are resources, like special hot lines for service members and their families where they can get immediate help.
"People in the military are put in extremely stressful and dangerous positions," he said. "That's not going to change, and we don't want it to change. It's the responsibility of leadership to listen and beware when their sailors are having trouble."
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, firstname.lastname@example.org