EDITOR’S NOTE: With suicide an important issue in the Army and the community, the Herald decided to run this article by Capt. Kevin Sandel, the public affairs officer for Fort Hood’s 504th Military Intelligence Brigade. The Herald will continue to cover the military suicide issue in both the Killeen Daily Herald and the Fort Hood Herald.
FORT HOOD — Soldiers in military intelligence units on post recently took a fresh approach to talking openly about shame, vulnerability and similar feelings, including some that are known to lead to suicide.
The Feb. 16 event, known as resiliency training in the Army, touched on weighty concepts not often seen in traditional Army training, but allowed soldiers to open a dialogue about difficult but universal emotions.
Modeled after the brigade’s internal Leaders Professional Development program on the book, “Daring Greatly,” by Dr. Brene Brown, the forum took soldiers out of their comfort zones to discuss perceptions about vulnerability and shame. Both factors are leading contributors to behavioral health concerns, including suicide.
During the forum’s opening comments, Command Sgt. Maj. Ryan Hipsley, the highest-ranking enlisted soldier for Fort Hood’s 504th Military Intelligence Brigade, said the purpose of the day was to get people talking about an uncomfortable topic in an unfamiliar setting. In the end, however, he said the experience would benefit soldiers and their units.
“The things I want you to think about over the next few hours. ... Are you comfortable with being uncomfortable, because many of you today are going to be uncomfortable. You’re going to be in small groups, not necessarily with your friends, peers or battle buddies,” Hipsley said.
Speaking to the 500 soldiers in attendance, Col. Laura Knapp, commander of the 504th, said the subjects of vulnerability and shame are difficult for most people, and all humans want interpersonal connection to one another.
“It’s hard to speak up, it’s hard to say, ‘I’m struggling,’ because we’re finding, especially in our military culture that there is a drive for perfection,” Knapp said. “Today that’s what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk a little bit about what gets in the way, because when we’re vulnerable, we all aspire to have belonging, feel valuable, to feel valued, and to show up every day.”
During the large group session, soldiers answered questions about trust, and the figurative masks that one puts on to hide sadness, depression, shame and embarrassment.
In the afternoon, soldiers divided into 20-25 person small groups and met in locations across West Fort Hood to discuss vulnerability and shame. In doing so, soldiers explored new concepts, and leaders facilitated discussions on identifying local solutions or skill work to shift perspectives.
Maj. Chuck Lowman, the 504th’s brigade chaplain, said the initial planning process brought together representatives from the Army’s Family Advocacy Program, Army Community Services, the Fort Hood Suicide Prevention Office, the Behavioral Health Department at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, and unit chaplains to discuss the event. He said the group consensus was “to get at the heart of what would create such despair within a person.”
“I’m in favor of the non-standard, personal interaction and participatory activities where the individual is involved,” he added.
During the small group sessions, each group used the book “Daring Greatly” as the small group leaders guide to generate discussion. The book is based on the author’s 15-plus years of research on shame’s effects on individuals, families and organizations. The author’s research on shame led her to a connect with herself and others on the path to “wholehearted living.”
While each group used the book as a base, the groups were free to discuss whatever topic came up. Some groups talked about societal expectations on genders, and others talked about humans’ unachievable drive for perfection.
“I think we put a lot of expectations on ourselves to be perfect in every way: perfect wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, soldiers, and there’s this gap between where we are, and where we want to be, and shame lives in that gap,” Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Stricklin said. “I think the lesson I took away was that we should always strive for personal improvement, but we can’t allow what we see in the media, movies, and our friends’ lives, through the filter of Facebook and Instagram, to dictate our expectations and make them so unrealistic.”
Stricklin believes many soldiers who participated in the resiliency day were apprehensive about discussing personal struggles but came away with a stronger mind and attitude to building resiliency.
“I think there were quite a few people that didn’t fully “buy-in” at first to spending a day ‘talking about feelings,’ but I think we did this so we are able to go back out in the fight,” Stricklin said. “We can’t do our jobs and be the best soldiers at peak performance if we aren’t taking care of ourselves and our emotional needs.”