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Army program helps soldier choose life over suicide

Feb. 3, 2014 - 11:00AM   |  
Former Army specialist Levertis Jackson and his wife, Rebecca, share a quiet and snowy moment after stepping out of their home in Colorado Springs.
Former Army specialist Levertis Jackson and his wife, Rebecca, share a quiet and snowy moment after stepping out of their home in Colorado Springs. (Nathan Armes for USA TODAY)
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COLORADO SPRINGS — The demons rushed in during the months after Levertis Jackson returned from Afghanistan in 2011. "I felt like I was losing complete control of my mind and my sanity," says the former Army specialist.

There were emotional scars from before he was even in the Army — trauma from a childhood of being bullied when he was a child in South Carolina, Jackson says.

Tumultuous adult relationships, one failed marriage and another failing, combined with a gnawing sense of losing control over his life were part of the emotionally toxic stew that festered during his 10 months in Kandahar.

"I just wanted out of life," recalls Jackson, 41.

By 2012, a year in which the U.S. Army reported an average of six soldiers on active duty and inactive status committed suicide each week, he was trying to become one of them.

Cracking a smile on a recent afternoon at a coffee shop outside the gates of Fort Carson, where he served, Jackson can joke about the day he says he put a rope fashioned out of military duct tape around his neck and tried to hang himself from a rafter of his garage.

A family friend found Jackson and cut him down at the last minute.

"I would like to say, in a little weird way, I'm a failure story," he says. "I failed to be successful."

The Army would put a very different spin on it: Reducing suicides has been the brass ring the service has tried unsuccessfully to grasp for nearly a decade.

By the time Jackson, left the Army last March, an experimental treatment program had taught him ways to keep the demons at bay — coping strategies that help when self-destructive impulses flare up.

"Even though I get in these suicidal mood swings, when I get there, the first thing I do is no longer look for a way to go through (with) it," he says.

The experimental study sponsored by the Defense Department and conducted by the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah and the University of Memphis, is one small piece of an array of efforts to stem suicides.

Army leaders believe these efforts are why, for the first time since 2004, it recorded a significant decline in suicides among its active-duty soldiers, falling from a record 185 in 2012 to 150 actual and suspected cases last year.

The fact that America's involvement in the Iraq War ended in 2011 and fighting in Afghanistan winds down this year also are likely major reasons for the decline in Army suicides among its active-duty soldiers, researchers say.

"We have to accept that operational tempo has dropped considerably," says David Rudd, who is co-authoring a study of the Fort Carson program.

Four of five suicides last year were by soldiers who had deployed at least once to Iraq or Afghanistan.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, chief of Army personnel, said Friday, describing how the burden of suicide plaguing the Army may be lifting. "We starting to see some opening of some doors and some light we haven't seen in awhile."

Suicides among soldiers not on active-duty status — National Guard troops and reservists living civilian lives at the time they killed themselves — actually increased last year to a record 151, an 8% hike over 140 deaths in 2012.

The Army is investing about $50 million a year in a program created in 2009 to help soldiers withstand mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The effort is designed to help soldiers keep a positive or optimistic outlook on life and cultivate strong social relationships.

Other Army efforts include expanding a network of behavioral health specialists to make counseling more accessible to troops and their families. Last year, the Army launched an effort to teach squad and platoon leaders how to recognize emotional problems in their soldiers and help them get assistance, says Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, a spokeswoman.

Even before that program began, however, Jackson says one reason he survived was because mid-level leaders demanded that he get help.

"He helped me survive, otherwise I would have offed myself," Jackson says of one sergeant, recalling the supervisor's words at one low moment: "Hey, Jack, you are not authorized to die."

In many ways, Jackson —- who today is married to his third wife, Rebecca, has four children from previous marriages and two step-children and works as a security guard — brought many emotional issues with him when he entered the Army.

He served two stints, in both cases suffering a reduction in rank after getting into trouble, and ultimately leaving the Army as a specialist.

He first joined in 1992, serving four years, including a tour in Bosnia when, Jackson says, another soldier who took his place on a mission was killed in a truck rollover accident, a memory that he says has never left him.

He re-enlisted in 2007 and began suffering severe depression after a 11-month deployment to Afghanistan that ended in June 2011. In addition to his suicide attempt, he began cutting his arms with a knife, an act he attributes to desire to feeling anything different from the hopelessness into which he was descending.

After in-patient mental health treatment in 2012, Jackson was enrolled in the small experimental program conducted by the National Center for Veterans Studies, along with undergoing regular therapy.

The program focused on 76 soldiers at Fort Carson, teaching them stress tolerance and problem-solving skills, says Craig Bryan, a psychologist who helped lead the study.

"One of the deficits of suicidal individuals is they don't know what to do with all of this pain and distress," Bryan says. "They struggle with generating alternatives to their problems. And part of that is because of these faulty beliefs — it's never going to get any better. I'm worthless. I'm incapable of solving problems."

The soldiers learned to identify "red flags" suggestive of sinking into emotional distress — insomnia, feeling isolated or a sense of inertia.

They were schooled in ways to cope, hopefully instilling a sense of empowerment over their illness, Bryan says. Therapists suggested exercise, going for a walk, listening to music or interacting with family or friends.

Calling a suicide hotline or going to an emergency room were viable options, but only when all else failed, Bryan says.

Jackson says the strategies worked for him. He still keeps handy a laminated card that reminds him of those things that make life worth living — his children and his new wife. And Rebecca has become someone willing to listen and provide solace, he says.

A key lesson, Jackson says, is learning what he can and can't control.

"Before, all my doors were closed and I'm in a black room," Jackson says. "I realized that I can't be in control of everything; that, yeah, life is full of bad things happening. But you can always look forward and try to make the best of the future."

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