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Suicide Is Painless

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Author's Note (November 2014)
:  I originally penned this essay shortly before I retired in July 2009.  Due to a recent spike in Coast Guard people taking their own lives, I decided I needed to take a fresh look at the whole subject.  Having thoroughly reviewed it, I stand by my original words.  Like everything else I write on this site, this is my opinion and in no way an official USCG stance.  In fact, I am quite sure that some Coast Guard people would bitterly disagree (and in fact have in the past) with me about a few things.  I have no problem with that as they are just as entitled to their opinion as I am.  At the time I wrote it, I didn't give much thought to the issue of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).  I am now sorry about that omission; PTSD is real (despite the state of denial some people live in) and if left unchecked can have debilitating effects on Coast Guard people right up to suicidal acts.  The state of suicide prevention training when I left the Coast Guard was pretty sad; I hope that has improved.

September 2015 update - since September is Suicide Awareness Month I have been sharing this regularly via Facebook and any other means.  I have found out that not much has changed since I got out so I continue to stand by my original words which start below.  

If I could offer one bit of advice it would be to (and I certainly don't know how to accomplish this) work on changing the culture that seeking assistance somehow makes you a some sort of wuss.  All the best help in the world can be available but it is useless if people are afraid to ask for it.  Maybe that's changing or has changed; I know I certainly hope so.

The Bottom Line remains that it really is up to everyone to basically have each other's back on this.  The incident at the Marine Safety Center I discuss in the original essay still haunts me to this day since I worked in the same office as the guy who tragically took his own life.  It doesn't really matter to me that the counselor assured me that it wasn't my fault in any way.  I still feel that maybe there was something that I missed that might have sparked a conversation.  I'll never know and that's the worst part about the whole deal.

I have added a section about a couple other Coast Guard suicides.  In one, I knew the member involved and was quite shocked.  In the other, I didn't personally know the member, but I was very familiar with the case.  If you are interested, you can access the page by clicking HERE.

My original essay starts below.

At least that’s what Mike Altman and Johnny Mandel wrote as they penned the lyrics to the opening song of the movie M*A*S*H... 

That suicide is painless,

It brings on many changes

And I can take or leave it if I please.

Of course, if you watch the television series you’ll note they don’t use the lyrics.  Well in fact, the only person suicide is painless for is the person committing suicide.  Those left behind have to deal with the feelings of guilt and that perhaps they missed something that could have prevented a tragic (and there is no other type when suicide is involved) death or a friend, a loved one or a shipmate.

Suicide has always been a bit of a troubling issue with the Coast Guard.  No matter how hard we tried, we always seemed to end up with a suicide rate higher than that of the general public.  To make matters worse, the Coast Guard is a macho organization no matter what the leadership claims.  The culture at most units was that anyone seeking help for a personal problem was some kind of a wimp.  You can disagree with me all day on this but don’t bother.  The macho culture of the Coast Guard isn't necessarily all bad.  Part of the reason that the Coast Guard can always do more with less is that most coasties have a very macho way of looking at things.  Again, please don’t interpret my use of the term macho to preclude women.  In fact quite the opposite is true; successful women in the Coast Guard generally have “macho” personalities greater than that of the average guy.  They had to develop into that type of person to survive.  In general, your average Coast Guard member man or woman is far tougher than your average person.  I can’t imagine someone expecting different from an organization that performs some of the missions the Coast Guard performs (and performs pretty well) on a routine basis.

Unfortunately I have, at least in my opinion, too much experience with suicide in the Coast Guard.  During my first tour at the Marine Safety Center, one of our staff engineers, an outstanding performing guy named (name omitted) killed himself on a Friday night at his apartment.  It’s not good to speak ill of the dead and in this guy’s case I wouldn't want to anyway.  He was an excellent worker and top notch officer.  As you would expect with a guy like this, he did the job no differently than he did work on a daily basis; in a complete and efficient manner using a single bullet from a 45 caliber Colt ACP.  According to the autopsy and medical reports, death was instant.

As word of the incident spread, so did the shock.  When my branch chief called me at home on Saturday with the news, I was dumbstruck.  There were roughly 40 officers assigned to the unit at the time and if I had to rank them by suicide risk this guy would have been so far down the list he would have been right above me.  The guy was so squared away, at least on the outside, that no one would ever consider him a suicide risk.

Monday was not a particular joyful day at the Marine Safety Center.  The question on everyone’s mind was “did we miss something?”  Let’s face it, the staff of the Marine Safety Center was made of primarily of over educated junior officers, mostly Lieutenants and Lieutenant (junior grades).  I was an over educated Lieutenant at the time working as a technical plan reviewer in the Engineering Division.  Well, it turned out that our friend was having both financial and marital troubles; let’s face it, if you have the former, you probably have the latter.  The sad thing was that no one within the unit was aware of this.  Yes, the guy was a generally quiet individual who kept to himself for the most part, but does that make a guy a suicide risk?  He never sought assistance from the Coast Guard with his financial difficulties.  In my experience, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance is an excellent program.  I have heard people assisted by them call it “a lifesaver”.  Could it have been in this case?  We’ll never know.  Anyhow, in talking to the counselor who came over from headquarters I learned a great deal they don't teach in annual "training".  For instance; I found out that sometimes people do not outwardly exhibit any signs.  Several of us who worked with the guy closely tortured ourselves for some time before resolving that we, at least as individuals, did nothing wrong.  Even writing this account well after (almost 15 years) the fact brings up painful memories and questions.  Still, even though no one individual may be responsible, the organization as a whole sadly bears the brunt of the responsibility. 

This was not my first time dealing with suicide as an issue, although this case has a much happier ending.  While assigned to the Ironwood, we had a crew member; a non rate named (name withheld) who we thought was going to commit suicide.  Why on earth would we believe that?  He said so.  Or did he?  OK, this guy was kind of a flake to begin with, but when he started selling off valuables a bunch of people got a little nervous.  He also had recently had a somewhat messy breakup with a local girl.  If you've ever been on a buoy tender, you know that the crew gets real close from top to bottom in a big hurry (I couldn't flirt with a girl in town without it being openly discussed on the mess deck).  Where at a shore unit a non rate could anonymously sell off stuff, on a cutter it gets noticed quickly.  This young man sold a high dollar camera and a bunch of other stuff.  This got people talking, but when he was overheard say “I’ll kill myself” got really got things moving.  Within a couple hours the guy was called in by the CO to talk about what was going on.  The corpsman had the straight jacket standing by.

We didn't end up taking (name withheld) away to a rubber room.  It turned out that he was trying to raise cash to buy a Camaro he had always wanted back home.  The “I’ll kill myself” was half a sentence.  The half no one heard was “if I don’t get this car.”  Of course, he was just running his mouth, but coupled with some other behavior the red lights were flashing.  Initially he was actually a bit angry that such a fuss was made, but after some reflection I think he really understood that no one wanted to see any harm come his way.  I really liked the guy myself and was genuinely happy nothing serious was going on. 

Did we over react?  Absolutely not; in those days we took care of each other.  We were genuinely concerned about the guy and got to the bottom of the deal in a hurry.  To this day I do not regret that we butted into this guy’s life.  Sadly, (name withheld) didn't get his car, although I saw the guy drive once and if he had actually got his sports car he might have killed himself (but that's another story!).  He put all the cash he raised into bonds and vowed he’d get one eventually.  I hope he did and is still cruising around in it.

My final situation involving a potential suicide was when I was the Executive Officer in Pittsburgh.  We had a guy, (name withheld) that was working a 40 hour job in addition to his Coast Guard gig.  The guy had expensive tastes and very high expectations for himself.  Working two jobs kind of wore the guy out.  There was already some concern about some deteriorating job performance.  One day a couple of the guys found him in the locker room totally disorientated.  When my chief inspector (who fortunately was a rather wise Lieutenant) approached him he told him his life sucked and he wanted it to end.

We had the guy in the psych hospital within an hour.  The guy really did need some help.  After a couple days and some counseling, the guy realized he was pushing too hard and needed a serious lifestyle change.  Did we save the guy’s life?  I don’t know for sure to this day.  Did we overreact?  Let’s just say that if I were presented with the same circumstances again I would not change a thing in how I reacted.  I was proud of my guys for stepping up and not just ignoring the situation.  Perhaps we over reacted, but then again, you can’t take chances on something this serious.

So, having some practical experience what do I think about the various suicide prevention training sessions I was tortured with during my career?  Personally, I think they amounted to little more than a “CYA” scheme by senior leadership.  I've had the opportunity to talk with other Coast Guard people who also had suicides at their units. These discussions were somewhat of an unofficial, informal support group.  What quickly comes to light is that unfortunately, suicide isn't a “one size fits all” proposition and rarely does life imitate training.  You must remember, your average Coast Guard member is a far above average person when it comes to things like determination and getting the job done.  If they decide it’s over, it’s probably over.

The bottom line is that no matter how hard the organization tries, we are going to at a minimum have a suicide rate that reflects the general population and it will most likely always be a little higher.

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