Fort Leonard Wood begins September Suicide Prevention Awareness Month campaign

Brian Hill
Col. Gary Law (right), 1st Engineer Brigade commander, pins a U.S. Army Achievement Medal on the uniform of 2nd Lt. Wyatt Espell, an Engineer Basic Officer Leader Course student assigned to Company B, 554th Engineer Battalion Aug. 28. Espell intervened when he noticed his battle buddy was "acting off," potentially preventing a suicide.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and Fort Leonard Wood senior leaders recognize that the Army community must increase engagement year-round to those struggling to find the help they need.

In line with the Department of Defense campaign theme of connectedness and the slogan, “Connect to protect,” Brig. Gen. James Bonner, Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood commanding general, and Col. Jeff Paine, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood commander, co-signed a proclamation Aug. 28 encouraging “all community members to take the time and inquire as to the wellbeing of their family, friends, battle buddies and neighbors and to genuinely convey their appreciation for their existence by any gesture they deem appropriate.”

Bonner said more service members have died in the past 20 years from suicide than in overseas contingency operations.

“Suicidal thoughts are invisible enemies with very visible consequences,” he said. “They sneak into the minds of our service members to destroy families and units with impunity.”

He added suicide prevention is a team effort.

“The solution is simple,” Bonner said. “We need leaders and battle buddies who care, who engage and who include every teammate – privates through general officers. We are all someone’s battle buddy and we must be there for each other.”

After signing the proclamation, Bonner asked Col. Gary Law, 1st Engineer Brigade commander, and 2nd Lt. Wyatt Espell, an Engineer Basic Officer Leader Course student assigned to Company B, 554th Engineer Battalion, to come forward.

While Bonner looked on, Law presented Espell with the U.S. Army Achievement Medal in recognition of “outstanding professionalism and dedication to intervene and assist a fellow student at risk of suicide.”

Espell said he recently noticed his battle buddy was “acting off” and he decided to intervene by making an effort to spend some extra time with his friend.

“His favorite food is salmon, and I said to him, ‘Let’s run to the commissary, get some salmon and let’s go grill,’” Espell said. “It was a really nice night and later I got a call. He chose to reach out. I really just tried to talk with him – see what was happening. It wasn’t anything major; I was just being there for someone.”

Espell said he did what any friend would do.

“I did what anyone would do in that situation — care about a friend in need,” he said. “The battle buddy system encourages getting rid of that stigmatism against reaching out and being comfortable with someone enough to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m really going through something right now. Can you please help?’”

As part of his suicide prevention awareness message to the Fort Leonard Wood community, Bonner quoted former U.S. Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell.

“‘The day Soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care,’” he said. “Let us vow to never let that happen.”

Service members having suicidal thoughts are encouraged to call or text the Veteran’s Crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (text 8-3-8-2-5-5). It is available 24/7 – it’s anonymous, free and supported by caring professionals. Fort Leonard Wood also has a free app for mobile devices called WeCare that provides easy access to all available resources.