Editor’s note: This article discusses suicide and suicidal ideation that some may find disturbing. If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.
James McGuffey was 30 years old when he found himself lying in bed, half drunk, with a pistol in his mouth.
That night in June 2008 was the culmination of years of trauma and stress that had gone unaddressed, and it wasn’t the first time he’d had thoughts about self-harm. A month prior in May, the Army Ranger, who was a sergeant first class at the time, chased “a bunch of pills” with Wild Turkey bourbon. Luckily some of his friends took him to the hospital where he got his stomach pumped. They told him they wouldn’t say anything. They begged him to get help.
But it wasn’t that easy. It rarely is.
McGuffey, now a command sergeant major with the 3rd Infantry Division Artillery, voiced the same fears a lot of service members mention when talking about behavioral health: How will it impact my career? What about my security clearance? How will I be perceived by my command, and by my peers? But in a conversation at 3rd ID’s headquarters at Fort Stewart, Georgia, last week, he explained how getting the help he needed saved his life and his career, putting him on a path towards healing that before had felt out of reach. Now he shares his story with other soldiers in the hopes it will encourage them to take action and get the help they need — and prompt leaders to listen to their soldiers. It’s not a suicide prevention brief, he made sure to clarify; it’s about how to get through life.
The underlying theme is similar to another soldier in the unit, Capt. Chelsea Kay who lost her older brother, also a soldier, to suicide when she was a cadet at West Point, New York. Kay now gives presentations to help other soldiers recognize signs that someone may need help, so they can intervene and potentially save a life.
Suicide prevention is one of the primary focuses of the Army’s This is My Squad initiative, which encourages leaders to get to know their soldiers, and soldiers to get to know their teammates. The goal is to build a culture where soldiers feel comfortable speaking up about challenges they might be facing, whether in the Army or in their personal lives. Frankly, it can’t happen soon enough; suicides had a reported increase of 30% among active-duty soldiers last year, with a 41% increase in the Army Reserve.
“One thing I’ve learned is steel sharpens steel,” McGuffey explained. “I don’t want to talk to the chaplain or I would’ve gone to the chaplain — I want to talk to you, because you know, you’ve been in longer than me, you’ve experienced more than me. So part of this is, if you’re a leader, stop looking at situations through your lense. Look at it through different lenses, and listen to your soldiers. Let them tell you their story.”
McGuffey’s story didn’t end the night his friends urged him to get help. In fact, it only got worse. After his attempted overdose in May, he said all he could think about was, “Oh my God, all my buddies have seen me vulnerable.” In the weeks that followed he was getting “drunk every night” until that night in June when he was renting a room from one of his Ranger buddies and getting even closer to ending his life.
But as he laid there with a gun in his hand, his mom called. McGuffey, a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy,” answered the phone.
“My mom, in tears, she’s like ‘Something told me I had to call you,’” McGuffey said, nearly in tears himself. “So I broke down and started telling her everything I was dealing with.”
She saved his life that night, and McGuffey said he’s made sure she knows it. But still, he couldn’t bring himself to get the help he needed until days later. He was at work at Fort Benning “just seeing red, everything was agitating me.” All it took was a joke from his boss that finally pushed him over the edge.
“It was literally a joke … and I lost it. I blacked out, and by the time I came to I’ve got four Rangers, they literally had to hold me down and take me to our regimental psych at the time,” he said. “They forced me in there.”
It wasn’t just one thing that had pushed McGuffey to that point, but a slow burn over many years and many deployments downrange. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, he was deploying “all the time.” Some of those deployments were “really, really good,” he said, and others were “really, really bad.” All in all, McGuffey has a total of 11 deployments to Afghanistan and two to Iraq under his belt. He’d also been through two divorces by that point — the first because his wife had “skipped town with my gunner at the time, which was cool,” and the second because of the demands of the Army, which kept him on the road more often than not.
“We were just two separate people,” he said of his second marriage.
Despite the strain he was under, he couldn’t bring himself to ask for help. He said the stigma around post traumatic stress disorder was “at an all-time high.” He was worried about his career and his security clearance. But that day in June when his friends sat him down in the psychiatrist’s office, he “just broke down.”
“I was a younger, faster, hotter model then,” McGuffey laughed. “So you’ve got this 265 pound Ranger, 8% body fat — totally bragging — hugging a pillow, just alligator tears.”
The doctor didn’t say a word, just stayed on his computer and let him get it all out, McGuffey said, until finally he gave him the game plan: McGuffey was going to change into a set of civilian clothes in the office, go out the back door, and someone was going to drive him to see a psychologist named Dr. Rose in Columbus, Georgia.
That first session was “one of the greatest conversations” McGuffey said he ever had. He talked with Dr. Rose for two hours, and was ultimately put on some medication. But the second meeting was when he finally “started having hope.”
“The dump truck that was parked on my chest was slowly backing off,” he said. “I was reinflating.”
He went back for appointments twice a week for three months, and then once a week for several more. He was taking his medication and it was actually helping, he said. It wasn’t long before some of those same friends who took him down to the psych’s office were asking him how it was going, how was he feeling? Was it working?
He told them it was, and soon McGuffey was sharing his story with other soldiers as well. He said three months later, despite his fears that what had happened would hurt his career, he was promoted. He felt a “new sense of purpose” in helping others, which led him to where he is today, telling his story with the hope it helps someone else take that step towards healing. He doesn’t see the same amount of stigma around behavioral health as he did over a decade ago. McGuffey said he wants to encourage soldiers to use the resources available to them, and encourage junior leaders to know what resources to point their soldiers to.
And like so many other parts of the military, suicide prevention is often a team effort. Recognizing the signs that a teammate is under significant strain, could use someone to talk to, or is struggling with something in their personal life can make all the difference. That’s the message that Capt. Kay also emphasizes in her presentation — what to look for, and how to do something about it.
Kay not only covers suicide prevention, but substance abuse. Her brother, who during her presentation is introduced only as Cpl. Flannery, was suffering from PTSD and bipolar disorder, and was injured in a vehicle roll-over during a deployment to Iraq. He was struggling in his personal life, trying to get custody of his two children and going through a divorce.
She shows soldiers her brother’s Facebook posts to illustrate warning signs that could have been spotted those six years ago, things like posting about being sober and then posting about drinking again only two weeks later. “What he’s saying here is hey, I have a dependency,” Kay said. Next she showed posts about her brother selling his musical instruments, which as anyone who knew him would know meant the world to him. Then came the Facebook posts about failed relationships where it almost sounds like he’s saying goodbye.
It’s things that someone who really knew him might have noticed as concerning, Kay said. And though at least one friend did notice something and comment on one of his posts asking Flannery to call him, and his cousin had him on the phone the night of his death, it ultimately hadn’t been enough.
“Feb. 10, 2015, I was in my last year in New York, and I woke up with three missed calls,” Kay explained. “And my Dad when I called him, he said ‘Chelsea, your brother killed himself.’”
What she found out in the wake of her brother’s death was that he was “on a lot of painkillers” because of his accident, and when she and her family looked into them they found that the drugs he’d been prescribed directly counteracted the bipolar medication he was on. But no one knew, so no one could help. Had his friends and loved ones known about the painkillers and his struggles with alcohol, someone might have been able to intervene, and her brother might still be alive, Kay said.
It’s this level of involvement that Kay wants to encourage in leadership; knowing what their soldiers are going through, knowing what their struggles are so they can look out for them.
“When we consider This is My Squad, this is the level that we need to be at as leaders,” Kay said. “So I encourage all of my soldiers and my junior leaders and my senior leaders; we have to understand the difference between invasive and intrusive leadership versus involved leadership.”
Knowing about the important relationships in a soldier’s life can be a game changer, Kay said, because those relationships falling apart is “one of the big factors that leads someone to reaching this dark place.”
It’s the same message McGuffey wants to impress on soldiers when he speaks to them: Take care of your teammates, know them enough so they trust you and are able to talk about their “deepest, darkest secrets,” whether that’s a relationship problem or financial issue. Building that trust and having that dialogue, McGuffey said, is paramount.
And ultimately, ask questions. Kay mentioned the Army’s “Ask Care Escort” (ACE) training program which centers around teaching soldiers how to intervene with those that may be at risk of suicide. Sometimes, she said, that includes directly asking: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
“That’s a very uncomfortable question. ‘Why would I ever do that?’” Kay said, explaining how soldiers can be hesitant to take that step. “The harder question is, ‘Why did I not?’”
Featured photo: Command Sgt. Maj. James McGuffey, senior enlisted advisor of the 3rd Infantry Division Artillery, 3rd Infantry Division, gives a speech to the graduates of the Basic Leader Course class 03-20 during their BLC graduation at Newman Fitness Center on Fort Stewart, Ga., Jan. 31. (U.S. Army/Spc. Jordyn Worshek)