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Fort Campbell soldiers shine light on suicide prevention

Woman wearing a mask, hugging her daughter Cynthia Langa hugs her daughter, Kylee, during the second annual Light Up the Night outside Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Cynthia walked in memory of her sister, Michelle McGibbon, who committed suicide in 2018. (Photo by Stephanie Ingersoll.)

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From the podium where he told his story, Bryan Flanery, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) veteran, could see the window of the barracks room where he attempted suicide in 2012.

“I was raised in a household where suicide was considered a coward’s way out,” Flanery told a group of more than 100 Soldiers and supporters who turned out Sept. 10 for the second annual Light up the Night event outside Blanchfield Army Community Hospital located aboard Fort Campbell, Kentucky. “When I was a very young man, I had an uncle who took his life and we didn’t go to the funeral. My dad refused. So, growing up that is what I believed – until that moment in 2012.”

Flanery spoke at a vigil and candlelight walk co-hosted by BACH, Fort Campbell Army Community Service and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation as part of the Army’s observance of National Suicide Prevention Month.

For many, the subject of suicide hit very close to home. Almost all who attended raised their hands when asked if suicide had impacted their lives in some way.

“This walk was for my sister,” said Cynthia Langa. “She took her life in 2018.”

Army Spc. Samantha Crim, a combat medic who worked in the BACH emergency room for 18 months, was often among the first to see suicidal patients, or worse, those who went through with it.

Crim has also seen the very personal side of suicide from loved ones who have served.

“My grandfather committed suicide before I was born and he was in the Army in Vietnam,” she said. “My mom battled depression my whole life and while I was at AIT, one of my husband’s good friends ended up committing suicide.”

When BACH asked for volunteers to take part in the suicide awareness event, Crim stepped up.

“I think suicide prevention is important,” she said. “We literally have 22 people (from the military) die every day from it.”

Army Sgt. Ashlea Barrett, occupational therapy technician, explained how in her profession suicide is common enough that she feels the effect of it even if she doesn’t know the person involved.

“I think it’s something we all think about because life gets really hard,” Barrett said. “Sometimes we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, and sometimes it would seem the easiest decision is to end it all.”

Flanery, who deployed to Afghanistan with 2nd Brigade Combat Team in 2010, told the crowd about the day that changed not only his life but that of his family.

At the time, he was assigned to Fort Campbell Warrior Transition Battalion, now known as Fort Campbell Soldier Recovery Unit as he prepared to transition out of the Army.

“It’s kind of eerie for me right now, because I can look to my right, and in that barracks room right over there is where it all took place,” Flanery said.

“It didn’t go quite the way I thought it would go,” he said. “I’ve seen movies and video games and it was always easy. Real life wasn’t that way. In October of 2010, I ended up getting injured. And at first, I didn’t believe my injuries were all that bad and neither did anyone else until weird things started happening, like my arm turned blue”

Additionally, Flanery couldn’t feel one of his feet and after getting checked out more thoroughly, learned he had fractured his neck and had extensive damage.

“What I wasn’t expecting is all the surgeries that lay ahead,” he said, adding that he also went from one group to another seeking help. Everyone told him things would get better if he followed their advice.

“Well, after eight surgeries and seven or more groups nothing was better,” Flanery said. “As I continued to try these things and nothing was getting better, it led me to a place of hopelessness, homelessness that I had never experienced or had imagined.”

Flanery was assigned to WTB, while his battle buddies moved on to other duty stations.

“So now I found myself in a building where I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “I didn’t care to know anybody. I didn’t belong, I didn’t know why I was there.”

Flanery’s then 4-year-old daughter played soccer and he coached the team. One Saturday morning, they went to have the team photo taken.

“That photo now hangs on our wall with the title under it that says, ‘Last Photo?’” he said. “Two hours after that photo was taken, I attempted suicide.”

Flanery did not succeed in taking his life but he succeeded in finally finding the help he needed.

“Something amazing happened after that attempt,” he said. “A group of people just like me, who had walked through similar things to me – they didn’t judge me, they didn’t mock me, they didn’t make fun of me, but instead they locked arms with me. They met me where I was. And even though I might have been in a different place, different situation or different time than them, that didn’t matter.”

“I had convinced myself that I couldn’t be the father that I was supposed to be,” he said. “I wasn’t the husband my wife deserved. If I couldn’t be those things, at least I could leave my family some money, (and) that they were better off without me. At the time I attempted suicide, I had two children. I now have four. That means two children wouldn’t have been in this world. My other two children, who knows what would have happened with them.”

Injuries and sudden life changes are not the only risk factors for suicide. According to United States Army Public Health Command, warning signs include previous suicide attempts, close family members committing suicide, past psychiatric hospitalization, recent losses including deaths and breakup or divorces, problems interacting with others, drug or alcohol use, violence in the home, handguns in the home, work-related problems, serious medical problems and poor performance.

Feeling isolated also can have a dramatic impact, and 2020 has proven very challenging for some with COVID-19 restrictions significantly limiting face-to-face social interactions.

“Our service members deserve to be heard and to be cared for,” said Army 1st Lt. Anthony Priest, BACH social work intern. “Events like this help raise people’s awareness. I think that’s the biggest thing. If people leave with some type of emotional reaction to what happened, they are more apt and likely to say something to a friend.”

Priest hopes the event also puts a face to the social work, psychology and behavioral health world. Like so many, he too has personal reasons to care deeply about suicide.

“In high school I saved a friend from ending her life, and then I lost a friend to suicide. He was a good friend of mine from the football team. Then when I was 22 years old, I kept my mom from killing herself as well,” he said. “That’s why I decided to pursue the field I am in. I enlisted as a behavioral health technician because I wanted to take care of soldiers, but I wanted to be a soldier also.”

Priest wants events like Light Up the Night to give voice to a subject that is taboo for many.

“The idea of this event is to shed light on a topic that is otherwise in the darkness,” he said. “I tell my patients often, struggling in isolation is the wrong answer. This shows people that any given person, to their left or right, could be hurting at any given point and you don’t know who they are and you don’t know what they are going through. We, as Soldiers and as humankind, we need to take care of each other.”

It is important to remember too that every Soldier is also a human being, with pains and sorrows who must find ways to address issues and healthy ways to cope to be more resilient, Priest said.

“Times when we don’t feel resilient is when we should be reaching out to our team members and our leadership to say, ‘I’ve got to get some help,’ and to be OK with that and to take confidence in that,” he said.

The Army provides many resources for people who are struggling, Priest said. Among those are behavioral health, chaplains and Military OneSource.

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