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Suicide in the Guard and Reserve on the Rise: 180th Leadership Wants You to Know There is Help

Swanton, OH -- Suicide rates among members of the military's Guard and Reserve forces have spiked this year, with some numbers rising to levels not seen since the Vietnam War.

According to an article posted July 26 of this year on military.com/news, 65 members of the Guard and Reserve took their own lives during the first six months of this year. That is up from 42 deaths for the same period in 2009, the article stated. Thirteen of those were members of the Air National Guard.

"This statistic hits close to home both as a civilian hospice chaplain and a Wing Chaplain," said Lt. Col. Harold Owens, 180th Chaplain. "During my last year as an active duty Chaplain at Keesler Air Force Base, I positively intervened in seven suicide attempts. While on call, Security Forces would call the 'Duty Chaplain' for the week, often times in the middle of the night, and say they have someone on the other line who was contemplating suicide. It would be at this point that the Chaplain's suicide prevention education and skills would kick in and talk the person down from taking their own life. Thanks be to God I have not had this type of experience while at the 180th."

Because Air National Guard bases do not have full-time chaplain resources readily available as their active duty counterparts, NGB leadership did aggressively respond to the increased suicide trend by providing wing chaplains 30 active duty days to connect with servicemembers and group leadership on a grassroots level to jumpstart the Suicide Prevention Program at the unit. Owens spent the entire month of September at the 180th.

"During the month, base-wide pastoral care visitation was provided to each shop on a daily basis, group leadership was consulted as it concerned at-risk Airmen, walk-in counseling was provided along with the completion a Suicide Intervention Certification program to keep the professional skills sharp," said Owens. "It felt like being back on active duty again, walking the base, talking with Airmen, meeting with leadership concerning Airmen and becoming totally ingrained with every component within the Wing."

Owens stressed the importance of the Wingman program, especially as it relates to Guard members. Because Wing leadership may not always have access to the day-to-day contact with Airmen, it is vitally important that each Airman covenant (take it upon themselves) within themselves to "care for" and "be there" for one another. After all, we are all that we have and we need each other to survive. We are living in very difficult times and it is paramount for each of us to take care of ourselves emotionally, physically and spiritually on UTA weekends as well as throughout the month," said Owens.

Owens further recommends unit members to take responsibility for their own mental and emotional health.

"Recognize that you are the starting point for promoting a healthy mind, body and spirit," said Owens.

Citing a tutorial that can be found in the Air Force Publication entitled "Leader's Guide to Managing Personnel in Distress," Owens applies the "LESSON" acronym in his own life and encourages others to do likewise.

"The 'L' is for Leisure. Make sure you make time for relaxation and peace. 'E' is for exercise: try to schedule some type of PT at least 30 minutes, three times per week. 'S' is for Sleep: this is crucial for reducing stress and allowing the body to rejuvenate from activities of the day, eight hours is generally recommended. 'S' is for Spirituality: attending a place of worship, networking with other believers and living a life based on moral values and ethical principles. The 'O' is for Optimism. This requires a person to balance the positive and negative aspects of a situation and avoid focusing on the negative. To take responsibility for one's decision without blaming yourself for all setbacks. And 'N' is for Nutrition: Let us closely monitor our daily nutritional intake especially during stressful periods in our life. After all, we are what we eat," said Owens.

"Suicide has been called a final solution to a temporary problem, let us address our 'LESSON' needs on a daily basis to help to keep us PREPARED TO SERVE and FIT TO FIGHT," said Owens.

Colonel Mark E. Bartman, Commander of the 180th Fighter Wing, echoed the chaplain's sentiments.

"You might think that the main reason that someone would take their own life would be related to multiple deployments, PTSD or other psychological/physiological reasons. In fact, the majority of suicides in the ANG have been due to financial or relationship issues. The Ohio National Guard provides a number of real time solutions to any number of problems an Airman may be having through Ohio Cares (www.ohiocares.ohio.gov, or 1-800-761-0868). Ohio Cares is a community of behavioral healthcare providers for our Airmen, families and employers. With one call you can reach a specialist in handling spiritual, financial or psychological problems. Of course, Military OneSource is a great reference as well. The bottom line is to not let personal problems get so far out of reach that the final solution looks like the only solution. We are a family, remember to talk with your 'brothers and sisters' on a monthly basis about what's going on in their lives and provide support or advice when needed. Let's take care of each other - 'One Team, One Fight!'" said Bartman.

Doug Merrill, a Bowling Green High School baseball coach, visited the 180th Fighter Wing in September of 2009 to address this very issue. In his new book, Fighting the Demon of Suicide, Coach Merrill shares his personal experiences in the hope of helping others face this demon. He recently sent an e-mail to the servicemembers
of the 180th and to all those in the military:

"The sacrifice that our men and women make while serving our country on active duty is unparalleled. The reality of their experiences while serving in a hostile environment can create an atmosphere that sometimes makes it difficult to re-enter society here at home. I would offer my sincere thank you for accepting the duty of protecting me and all of America. Never forget the millions of Americans that share the feeling of honor, respect and grati-tude for all that you have endured. I would ask that should you experience the feeling of being overwhelmed by all that you have witnessed that you find the strength to seek and find help from trained professionals. There is no dishonor in using the full resources that are available and around you. God Bless!"

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