A Tall Order: Preventing Suicide in the Military

matt-cassellOur nation recognizes September as National Suicide Awareness Month. The recent tragic death of beloved actor, comedian and humanitarian Robin Williams has once again thrown suicide into the limelight. Let us take a moment to remember the suicides that have not been front-page news.

These suicides are not national headlines but should weigh heavily on the hearts of all Americans. Let us take pause to reflect on the growing number of military suicides since the onset of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the family, friends and comrades left behind, suicide is a war that never ends. It is time, friends, to stand tall against an enemy who cannot always be seen. The enemy does not fight a fair battle; the enemy cannot be defeated until we all make a commitment to leave no man behind. Let us now as a nation adopt the Army’s credo to “never leave a fallen comrade” as we unite to retaliate against this silent war.

Jacob Sexton lost his battle against this deadly foe. Army Specialist Jacob Sexton was an Indiana National Guard soldier from Farmland, Indiana who tragically committed suicide in 2009 in a Muncie, IN movie theatre while on mid-tour leave from combat deployment to Afghanistan. According to reports, Jacob became aggravated and confrontational with movie theatre staff when simply asked to present identification for admission to an R-rated film. Jacob proceeded to shoot himself in the head in the lobby with a semi-automatic handgun. SPC Sexton was carrying a burden of silent suffering. It is too late for Jacob, but we can honor his service to this great nation by working tirelessly to prevent more tragedies like this from occurring.

SPC Sexton’s tragic death inspired Senator Joe Donnelly, United States Democratic Senator for Jacob’s home state of Indiana, to propose legislation in May of this year aimed at reducing the alarming number of military suicides. Senator Donnelly’s bill will address the mental health needs of all branches of the Armed Services, including the National Guard and the Reserves. Although the military has made significant strides in addressing this disturbing problem, the mission is not complete. We cannot let another day pass without taking further action. We cannot afford to lose this battle.

The bill, which was successfully attached the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act which has passed every year for the last 52 years, will very likely be signed into law by the President later this year. Once enacted, the legislation will ensure that every service member has a person-to-person mental health assessment annually. Another critical component of this legislation is that it will protect the privacy rights of those military members who ask for help.

This is a significant part of Senator Donnelly’s bill because SPC Sexton was on suicide watch with a former unit. However, this was omitted from his medical records due to fears of being passed over for a promotion. The mission is a fail until asking for help is regarded as a sign of strength and not as a sign of weakness.

This epidemic of suicide in the United States Military is a nationwide concern. In 2012, the number of suicide deaths was greater than the number of combat-related deaths in Afghanistan. The family and friends left behind fight a war that never ends. The community affected by this crisis is not limited only to service members and their families. As we enjoy liberties granted to us by the sacrifice of the men and women who have worn the uniform of our country, we must not leave them behind. The military community is the nation’s community. The safety and well-being of the volunteer fighting force that stands ready to deploy and engage the enemies of the United States of America is of nationwide concern. Let us not forget that these men and women are our neighbors and fellow countrymen.

This nation knows Jacob Sexton; he is your neighbor, your son, your cousin, your friend and your student. His face is unfamiliar, but his story, like that of so many others, is woven into the fabrics of this country. The scope of this issue runs deep in the heart of every American who enjoys the liberties granted to us by sacrifice and due diligence of those who wear the uniform of the red, white and blue.

This message is simple, but the order is tall: be a force against this dark enemy that takes its victims ruthlessly. As our service members return home from the sands of war and unload the burdens of a 12-year fight, welcome them with open arms. One person can make a difference and that person may be you. We become a source of strength for those around us when we stop talking and we start listening.

By Christina Spiker

Christina (Wensel) Spiker is a former resident of Clarion County and currently resides in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She is a graduate student at the University of Southern California pursuing a Master’s degree in Social Work with a concentration in mental health and a sub-concentration in military and veteran affairs. She is a summa cum laude graduate of The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. She is also the spouse of former Clarion County resident US Army Captain Steven Spiker who is assigned to 1-67 AR, 2BCT, 4ID in Fort Carson, Colorado.

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