Many service members feel alone. This is especially the case in the reserve components, where people often see their brothers and sisters and arms once a month and struggle more with daily life. At the same time, reservists and guardsmen have bonds that that often surpass those experienced by other service members. We should always remember that the Guard is family.
This past month, our unit held a suicide standdown, where we took a knee and reminded personnel that they are valuable members of the team, that they need to keep an eye on and help each other, and that people who are struggling have many resources available. Most people are aware of the extremely high suicide rates in the military, which are among the highest in the U.S. Service-wide, suicide rates have declined slightly over the past year by about 15 percent, but there has been no similar decline in the National Guard. The reason becomes quickly evident. People whose full-time job is the military are with their brothers and sisters daily, and many of their problems are related to dealing with service. Not so in the reserves, where people struggle with other jobs, with family, and with life outside of service. They deal with the same problems with the rest of the population, but these are compounded by service. Further, since they see their units only occasionally, there are many months between when their issues become noticeable to others.
Yet National Guard units offer other benefits that can help people struggling with behavioral issues. Unlike other services and components, where people are constantly being reassigned and come and go, most enlisted personnel spend their entire careers in only one or two units. This is the case even though most people no longer drill at armories that are down the street – the downsizing of the Guard in most states has largely ended the feeling of a hometown Guard. Nevertheless, though you drive several hours to drill, you are part of a small group of coworkers. You see the same people consistently over several years, even if you only see them a few times per year. You get to know people closer and can see their progress through life as they finish college, enter the workforce, have families, age, and then retire. You go to religious services together, celebrate holidays together, and you hang out after work. Many people maintain these relationships even after they leave the military as they attend luncheons and reunions.
Why, then, has suicide remained so high in the Guard? Part of it is that people are becoming less and less involved in each other’s lives. There is a tendency not to interfere with people, not to meddle, not to be nosy. People embraced “don’t ask, don’t tell” in more ways than one. Part of the reason is how busy everyone has become, not only with work, but with modern media. Everyone is working like a dog, and then you spend your spare time on phones and computers. The cure is to become more involved in each other’s lives. We must get to know each other again. We must know about our coworkers and employees. We must ask them questions about their lives and help to celebrate their milestones. We must make ourselves available even between the one weekend a month. We must check up on each other. Some are reluctant to do so because of not being reimbursed or not having the time, but this is a matter of life or death. It only takes a few minutes to send an email or make call, but these touchpoints mean the world to those who are struggling.
If the Guard is family, this is the least we can do. If these people are our brothers and sisters, we must show a little interest in them, ask questions, get to know them, and reach out to them. It could save their lives. There are enormous advantages to being in a military family, from extensive resources to help people, to having stability outside our often chaotic lives. If you are in trouble, turn to your family. We are ready to help.
© 2022 J.D. Manders