U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips is the Deputy Commanding General (Rear), 3rd Infantry Division, and the Senior Commander of Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield. He shares his thoughts on Soldier reintegration and his personal story of asking for help when you need it. For more information on suicide prevention resources, please visit our Restoring Hope web special.
Compared to the Army of my youth, soldiering is hugely more complex and demanding. Not only must a Soldier of any rank know heaps more than those who went before, but the repeated deployments create a pressure cooker that can make even the return home a challenge.
Many of us take for granted that coming home from a deployment will be a euphoric event. And for many –even most – it is a wonderful experience.
Single or married, life will be different upon redeployment. If you’re married, maybe your spouse will have grown more independent and now be the main disciplinarian for your children. That may leave you wondering where you fit in – after all, a year ago you were “head of the household.” Your kids grew older and (so they think) wiser. Maybe your relationship didn’t survive deployment. Or maybe it got a lot stronger. Maybe you have lost interest in things that captivated you before deployment. Or maybe loneliness has crept into the picture. Whatever the case, every Soldier comes back a little—or a lot—different after a deployment, and often comes back to a home situation that’s changed.
That’s why the Army’s standard 10-day reintegration process is so vitally important. Reintegration is all about bringing Soldiers home from deployment, getting them back into a home station state of mind, reacquainting them with their Families, and preparing them for duty – a process called “Reset.” At the 3rd Infantry Division, there are no plans for deployment within the next two years, give or take (we know that “reality” has a vote, and this may change). But that kind of dwell is good: we anticipate that we’ll have the time to really do reset the way our Army intends – and research shows that it takes about two years to recover from a year-long combat tour.
Over ten half-days of reintegration, Soldiers meet with chaplains, health care professionals, safety experts, financial experts, and their own chains of command to prepare them for life after deployment. Reintegration topics include motorcycle and automobile safety, medical screenings, communicating with loved ones, domestic and sexual violence, finances, and suicide prevention.
In the past few years, the Army has recognized the growing threat suicidal thought presents to everyone in our Army family: no one is immune. That recognition brought a determination to beat back this threat, and in the past couple years we have come far in combating suicide and associated behavioral issues, such as depression.
One of the biggest barriers we face is shared within our greater culture – the stigma associated with admitting a behavioral health problem and asking for help. I know: depression hit me out of nowhere a couple years ago. Here I was, a brigadier general on the Army Staff in the Pentagon. I had the world licked. Then a mix of personal issues collided and into a tailspin I went. And didn’t come out of that tailspin until I faced the issue, faced the need to ask for help, and – in my case – turned to an Army chaplain, who helped me.
So, I know first-hand that all this “it’s OK to ask for help” talk is on the level. I lived it.
It is not a sign of weakness to admit you have a problem. It is a sign of strength and living up to the Warrior Ethos to seek help for a problem: if you let yourself be dragged down when help can bring you back up, you are not only letting yourself down, you are letting others down. When I was down, I wasn’t able to give my work my very best, and that let my teammates down.
Coming back to the tragedy of suicide: it hurts everyone touched by the death (or even the attempt). It solves nothing. Teammates, friends and family – all those left behind – may torment themselves: “What could I have done to keep this person from taking this irrevocable act?” Survivor’s guilt can be a heavy burden.
That’s why suicide prevention is such an essential part of reintegration. Returning from deployment is a stressful time, one full of changes; add that stress to any stress brought back from the deployment. It’s a transitional time, and we know that transitions are especially tricky.
So during reintegration, we emphasize the importance of buddies keeping an eye on buddies and leaders keeping an eye on their troops – just like everything else we do as a team! In the Army’s latest iWatch campaign, every Soldier is a sensor: we must look out for each other. Remember ACE? Ask, Care, and Escort – ask your teammate if he (or she) is thinking about hurting himself or has thought about suicide; care about your teammate, actively listen, and encourage him to seek help; finally, escort him to a health care provider, behavioral health specialist, a chaplain, or someone else qualified to address suicidal thoughts. Most important, do not leave your teammate by him- or herself.
Our Army is the strength of our nation because it is a team of superb individuals who have joined into an unbeatable team. When we tragically lose one of our number – a Soldier, a Family Member, an Army Civilian – our team weakens by that much. When we are in harm’s way, deployed in support of our nation’s principles, we understand and mitigate the risks; death comes in spite of our best efforts to defeat the risk.
Suicide is a tragedy that we can avoid with the right responses. When we, either on our own, or with the help of a buddy, recognize we’ve hit, as I call it, “cloudy weather,” and confront that reality, we are that much closer to getting clear of the problem and resuming our life the way it was meant to be. I will always remember how good it felt to get back the old “me” again.
Regardless how bad you think things are, you are not alone, and the situation isn’t impossible. You are a vital member of the team, and the simple act of asking for help is the single best step you can take. Our Army takes care of its own, and we’ll be there to help you take the next steps.