FORT HOOD — To truly engage soldiers in suicide prevention training, Fort Hood officials decided to incorporate new experiences to bring the message home, said Sharon Sutton, Suicide Prevention Program manager.
“We need to shift our thinking, and do more forward thinking,” she said after leading a panel discussion as part of an Army-wide safety stand down to train on suicide prevention.
During a stand down, soldiers put aside standard day-to-day work and focus on one subject. Since September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, the stand down was held Thursday.
For this year’s training, Sutton said Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., commander of III Corps and Fort Hood, wanted something different.
“Gen. Campbell has always been an outside-of-the-box thinker. He didn’t want slides. He wanted something real, that people could connect with,” Sutton said.
In addition to the interactive role-play that recreates scenarios of suicides, Sutton added two movies and a discussion panel. Each had two showings during the day that soldiers could attend.
The panel featured three families, all connected to Fort Hood and affected by suicide.
“This is not a story. ... It’s called reality and it hurts a lot of people,” said Dave Swenson, who traveled from Humble with his wife, Judi Swenson, and their grandson, Tim Swenson, to talk about the death of his son, Davy Swenson.
On June 16, 2005, Davy Swenson, a soldier at Fort Hood, killed himself in his Killeen apartment.
“He loved Fort Hood so much,” said Judi Swenson. “When we’re feeling down ... we come to Fort Hood for comfort. Just being here around the troops, going to McDonald’s and seeing a soldier in line, it doesn’t cause us pain anymore. It causes comfort.”
Judi Swenson spoke to a packed audience in Palmer Theater about her son. He had just transitioned to a new unit and was having trouble making connections.
“He didn’t persevere. He gave in to depression and loneliness,” she said.
Judi Swenson said her son did attend mental health appointments, but didn’t like that at each visit, he had a different doctor, and suggested Fort Hood consider creating consistency in mental health care.
“As a survivor, I had Timmy in counseling two weeks afterward,” she said. “He saw the same counselors and same doctors. ... With Davy, I think that could have made a difference.”
Also on the panel were Sarah Campbell-Hester, a former soldier whose husband killed himself while on active duty, and Tricia Radenz, a military spouse whose 12-year-old son killed himself.
After Campbell-Hester’s husband died, she, too, went into a severe depression and couldn’t reach out. She transitioned to a new unit, and said commanders ignored her cries for help and thought she was trying to get out of work.
She eventually got sent to a training course, but still spiraled downward and planned to kill herself in the same way her husband had. Just as she was about to hang herself, a maid walked into the barracks.
“I’m so thankful a maid walked in,” said Campbell-Hester. It was then she was taken seriously and found a mental health counselor she connected with.
“I suggest to the units and to y’all, check in with your buddies,” she said. “Not everybody saying they have issues is trying to get out of (physical training). Everybody’s life is worth saving.”
After telling her son Daniel’s story, Radenz said there’s not a day that she doesn’t run through all of the “shoulda, coulda, wouldas.”
“Once they’re gone, you can’t bring them back,” she said. “We can’t be afraid to say, ‘Do you want to kill yourself?’”
Campbell attended the morning discussion and thanked the panelists for sharing their powerful messages.
“Some good can come out of this,” he said, addressing the soldiers in the audience. “If you’ll go back to your units and take it to heart ... if you’ll intervene. ... The best word I heard today is persevere. You may have to cry for help, but do it. There’s no shame in asking for help. We’ve had a very hard week at the Great Place,” he said, referencing the announcement of four soldier deaths. “But we can persevere.”