Part One: Seeking help
I am a patriotic American male, a full-fledged member of the profession of arms and I always considered myself as a completely self-sufficient senior noncommissioned officer. Simply puttough. Or so I thought! During my last deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, I was the public affairs officer for a provincial reconstruction team. Our mission was to work with the Afghan officials to provide sustainable infrastructure, security and governance for their people. It was very kinetic with multiple direct and indirect fire attacks. My job was to tell the story of the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen working in four provinces and two regional commands. To do that job effectively, I had to travel with the troops. In my 66 outside-the-wire missions, I was involved in five troops-in-contact incidents resulting in two air medical evacuations. By the time my 11 months in Afghanistan were done, I was completely spent. I came home a mess. I was in constant physical and emotional pain.
It did not take long to realize that my post-deployment self was a fundamentally different Chief Simonsen. I was much more emotional, had difficult times in crowds and tasks were more difficult to complete. Frankly, with a feeling of hopelessness, I was at risk of suicide. Soberly, I am not alone. The Navy and Air Force currently have annual rates of more than 15 completed suicides per 100,000 people. That means that if Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling were a “typical” base, we would have had three people kill themselves this year. That is three of our colleagues, neighbors, and friends. Not just this year, but year after year after year.
It took courage to admit I was not strong enough to recover on my own. But I did not like where I was and decided to seek help. I never seriously contemplated hurting myself or anyone else, but that is not because I am any better than anyone else. My strength was in knowing there were friends, colleagues and family members to support me. I knew these same people needed me and wanted me to get better.
I reached out to my personal and professional support systems and they were there for me with care and compassion. I have my wonderful wife who has spent the last quarter century following me around the world. My pastor, a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm, worked with me to deal with post-traumatic stress. My primary care provider treated my hip and back injuries. The Traumatic Brain Injury clinic at the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital provided me with physical, speech and occupational therapy and a social worker. And I was a regular at the mental health clinic.
There have been “career implications” to my seeking help. First, and not insignificantly, I am alive and available for duty. Secondly, I have made significant progress toward wellness which has improved my job performance. Thirdly, I have learned coping techniques and acquired skills that help compensate for my war-related injuries. And finally, I have learned to be more open and upfront in tackling tough issues with a focus on what is truly important. All of these “consequences” have resulted in me being named the senior enlisted leader of this great installation. Not too bad.
I am not ashamed. I sought help and I still do. Will you?
(The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24-hours a day)