*Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you can confidentially seek assistance via the Military/Veterans Crisis Line by calling 988 and dialing 1, via text at 838255 or chat at http://VeteransCrisisLine.net. You don’t need to be a VA beneficiary to use the service.
Shared familiarity with isolation brought Col. Eric Kreitz, Master Sgt. Trevor Beaman and Erica Wirka together on a Zoom call on Wednesday.
They are part of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s community. Each has been impacted by suicide or suicide attempts and spoke about their experiences during a media roundtable discussion last week.
Wirka is the wife of Chief Warrant Officer 1 John Michael Wirka Jr.,36, who died on Jan. 14, 2021.
Erica Wirka said she told her husband goodbye on Jan. 10, 2021, when he left on a short professional-development trip to El Salvador.
“Little did I know that he was going to come home in a flag-draped casket,” she said.
Wirka said that four days after her husband left for El Salvador, she was at work when she received an email from him expressing he wanted to end his life. She said she immediately stepped outside and tried to reach as many spouses of her husband’s team members.
Wirka finally reached a team member who relayed the message about her husband to a captain and team sergeant and chain of command. There was little she could do with the countries separating her and her husband.
“I was completely helpless,” Wirka said. “I couldn’t just get in my car and drive to try to find him.”
She said she didn’t hear back from anyone for serval hours.
By 7 p.m., a chaplain and officer were at her parents’ home to deliver the news — Chief Warrant Officer 1 Wirka was dead.
“That was just that was the most soul-crushing moment of my life,” Erica Wirka said. “You would never see this happening. It’s just it was so surreal.”
According to Department of Defense data, Chief Warrant Officer 1 Wirka’s death was one of 175 regular Army suicides in 2021.
Defense department data shows that over the years, there were 130 suicides in the regular Army in 2016; 116 in 2017; 141 in 2018, 145 in 2019; 174 in 2020; and 108 for the first three quarters of 2022.
“We want our soldiers to know that getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness,” Gen. James C. McConville, chief of staff of the Army said in an October statement. “The Army’s goal is to make it as easy as possible for soldiers to get the help they need.”
Out of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 36,000 soldiers, 18 deaths by suicide were reported last year, a spokesperson said.
In September last year, the command updated its suicide prevention policy, which is based on psychologist and suicide expert Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide.
The theory is that people are most at risk of suicidal ideations when experiencing a lack of belonging, perceiving they are a burden and having access to lethal means, or tolerating pain and overcoming fear of death, said Georgia Harrison, a suicide prevention program manager for USASOC.
To decrease the risks, Harrison said, programs are in place to create opportunities for soldiers to be part of a community, have a purpose, address stress wellness and management, and officials are collecting and measuring data.
A community could be found through peer support networks, mentorship programs, or incorporating families, she said.
Transitions for soldiers, whether for medical or legal reasons, they’re getting out of the Army or are between commands, are timeframes that Harrison said someone’s individual purpose can be targeted.
Because USASOC is the higher command to multiple Special Forces groups and special operation forces like the 75th Ranger Regiment civil affairs and psychological operations units across the U.S., Harrison said units are evaluating their needs for suicide prevention and programs.
“We’re not just supporting individuals who are experiencing suicide but also (supporting) our whole command and helping to add quality of life and give that human experience more positivity,” she said.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said that hearing from soldiers and family members impacted by suicidal ideation helps leaders adjust and evaluate what they can do to help the soldier.
“If you don’t hear the stories, you’re not going to know how to fix the problems,” Roberson said.
Master Sgt. Trevor Beaman is a 7th Special Forces Group soldier who’s survived three suicide attempts.
He enlisted in the National Guard in 2000, transitioned to the regular Army after graduating from Purdue University in 2006, completed the Special Forces Qualifications Course in 2009 and was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg until 2017.
He deployed to Afghanistan four times with 3rd Group — for a total of 24 months over a 36-month time frame — followed by a deployment to Africa.
Beaman said his first suicide attempt was when he was about 11 years old.
Beaman said by the time he started college, he’d regularly binge drink and use alcohol to forget about a childhood that included sexual abuse.
He said he continued to use alcohol to “get over a lot of the things that I had seen in Afghanistan and other deployments,” and also started to use prescription pain pills in 2011 to “dull the aches and pains of these combat trips.”
“Being witness to the part of human life being lost, the years of feeling like I could possibly die at any moment and the witness of moral atrocities — there’s big things that weighed on me,” Beaman said.
Beaman’s second struggle with suicidal ideation was in 2015 when — after spending multiple days binge drinking in isolation — he admitted himself to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg.
Beaman said he felt as if he’d be a burden, but that a lot of people from the 3rd Special Forces Group helped him out once they learned what was going on.
“There was never any stigma about me reaching out for help or any of the things that I’ve heard about people saying that they won’t be able to deploy or anything like that,” Beaman said. “I understand that there’s risk mitigation that is needed.”
Beaman said he received behavioral health help and was able to deploy.
While serving as an instructor at the Special Forces Dive School in Key West, Florida, in 2018 Beaman said he had another suicidal ideation, but that was mitigated by his wife reaching out to his teammates.
“I was living a horror film in my mind that no one else could see,” Beaman said.
Six months late, Beaman said, he’d referred himself to an alcohol abuse rehabilitation center but suffered from his third period of suicidal ideation in 2019.
“The biggest difference between this time is that I wasn’t drinking alcohol and it really scared me because I put a lot of my reasons why I wanted to harm myself based off of the consumption of alcohol,” he said.
Beaman said he isolated a lot and told himself that his family would be better off without him and that he again planned to hurt himself, but was admitted to a Navy hospital to be stabilized, before entering a behavioral health hospital for two months.
Similar to Beaman, Col. Eric Kreitz said he struggled with alcohol, but for different reasons.
Kreitz is currently an information warfare advisor to the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Kreitz said his childhood was “picture-perfect,” and that neither of his parents struggled with alcohol.
Kreitz said he however set stringent expectations for himself and feared failing.
Those feelings, he said, continued through college.
“In my active alcoholism, I became really self-centered and really isolated,” Kreitz said.
Kreitz said he struggled with feelings of guilt, shame fear and inadequacy, but tried to balance to feelings by taking pride in his work.
By 2011, Kreitz said, he started drinking to blackout.
After drinking at his brother’s wedding and upsetting his wife, Kreitz said he sought help but not because he wanted to for himself. A few months later, he started drinking alcohol again, something he said continued for another seven years.
Kreitz said the three things that held him back from seeking help were pride, fear and isolation.
Kreitz’s career progressed to him becoming a psychological operations battalion commander. He’d even received “the best,” evaluation of his career, but felt as if he was fooling everybody.
While on leave for a family member’s wedding in 2018, Kreitz said he drank until he blacked out.
He woke up looking at the stars and noticed red and blue lights.
Kreitz was taken to the hospital, where a police officer asked him if he knew what happened.
A doctor asked him the same question, before revealing Kreitz’s suicide attempt.
Kreitz was told that the attempt was near a wood line and though it was dark, some people spotted him in the middle of the act and helped him.
“When my wife came into the room at the hospital, the first thing I told her was, ‘Thank God it’s over,’ because I knew at that point, I could give myself permission to go get the help that I needed,” Kreitz said.
Programs and plans
USASOC’s Human Performance and Wellness Program is part of the prevention approach, said Jeff Wright, deputy director of the program.
Wright said health and wellness are being integrated early into a soldier’s career so that the soldier doesn’t get “into a position where they think about self-harm.”
The program, Wright said, focuses on five domains: the physical, the cognitive, the psychological, spiritual, and social and family.
Wright said the physical could be addressed if a soldier seems to lose the drive with a workout program.
The soldier’s reasoning could be he or she had a bad night of sleep or lower back pain, or there might be another reason that a wearable electronic could detect, he said.
Those reasons, Wright said, could be in the physical realm, but the soldier’s reasoning for not sleeping well could be more cognitively linked to family stress, which he said a family life counselor or chaplain could help with.
Roberson said that years ago, some soldiers wouldn’t even go to a doctor for physical problems, despite injuries.
Wars during the past two decades where soldiers were shot at or killed has led to leaders recognizing that to “keep as many people in combat as possible,” the physical aspects should be treated.
The same approach of getting soldiers to doctors and physical therapists is being used for “mental fitness,” he said.
Roberson said the 3rd Special Forces Group is an example where a soldier might be deployed four times before taking a step back and realizing there’s a problem.
“People will go until they can’t go anymore,” Roberson said. “It’s a leader’s job to like figure out like, what’s the limit for this person this individual, this unit, etc.”
Wright said units are being tasked with developing their own strategy action plans set to be in place by April.
There are programs for married soldiers, soldiers with young children, or soldiers with high school teens, he said.
Wright said fishing groups or bicycle groups are ways for soldiers to get away from isolation. “I think it’s up to leadership and the staff there to kind of figure out where the pockets of vulnerability are and even if there’s not a vulnerability and it’s just something to sustain that connectedness and the community approach,” Wright said.
Officials have recognized that improving quality of life factors, such as the sleeping environments or dining facility accommodations, can be helpful, he said.
“We always look back at a recent suicide and there’s always something that we feel that we may or could have done better,” Wright said. “I think it’s just a work to evolve on this process ... it’s something that we constantly stay vigilant to.”
Chief Warrant Officer 1 Wirka enlisted into Special Forces after earning a mechanical engineering degree and working in the civilian world.
Erica Wirka described her husband as even-keeled, calm, “the smartest guy in the room,” witty and sarcastic.
“Though Johnny possessed great strength and fortitude as a person, he was still one that fell victim to his own distorted thoughts, just going to show that even the strongest among us are not immune to suicidal ideations,” she said.
Wirka said there were no “red flags,” or signs that led up to her husband’s death.
“No matter the person, no matter the experience, it can happen to anyone,” she said.
His autopsy report showed no signs of alcohol or drugs in his system, she said.
In the weeks and months after her husband’s death, she said, she didn’t want to face reality and started to use alcohol and prescription drugs “irresponsibly.”
Wirka struggled with depression and her own suicidal thoughts.
“It’s hard to be vulnerable and to admit you need help, but within that vulnerability, there’s strength,” she said.
She entered a rehab facility on Valentine’s Day last year and has remained sober with support.
Wirka decided to leave her teaching job and applied for a master’s program in counseling, with the goal of becoming a counselor therapist to assist military communities and addicted populations.
“I don’t believe we’re designed to do this life alone,” she said. “We need the support of others ... and I hope to be a source of that support in a professional capacity.”
Wirka said she hopes others will take responsibility and seek help to get past the thoughts of not wanting to live anymore.
Distorted thoughts about being a burden to others, she said, will pass.
“I know how hard it is to see around that, but sometimes, I mean, it might even take just physically moving your body to be with other people. Just that act, you know, stepping away from the isolation, it can be helpful,” Wirka said.
There’s life after tragedy and struggle, she said.
“There will always be hope,” she said.
The goal for leaders, Roberson said, is to understand the vulnerabilities.
“People are more important than hardware to us,” Roberson said. “We’ve invested a lot. We want to keep these people.”
Kreitz said that as a leader, one thing he’s noticed is that instead of first asking someone “what’s wrong,” when he’s vulnerable and then asks about someone’s day, they’re more apt to open up.
Beaman said his recovery process has included cognitive behavioral therapy and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous programs.
He said that in 2020, Human and Wellness Program representatives introduced to him a Chicago-based dual sympathetic reset program and stellate ganglion block process, which injected six infusions of ketamine into his nerves and is designed to help with traumatic brain injuries.
The program, Beaman said, helped with rumination and negative thoughts.
Another tool, he said, that has taught him to be more “present and mindful,” is finding a hobby.
For Beaman, that hobby is spearfishing.
He encourages others to not be afraid of using resources and help within the Special Operations Command.
The Special Forces Association and other associations, Beaman, said, also have programs and centers to help soldiers reset.
“Being vulnerable didn’t take away anything about me being an operator or a warrior,” Beaman said. “It did the opposite.”
Kreitz said there is “life after crisis.”
After his suicide attempt, he spent two months at the Farley Center in Williamsburg, Virginia, to recover from alcoholism and attended outpatient treatment at Womack Army Medical Center.
Kreitz said his chain of command was involved in and supportive of the process.
“My chain of command put me in a meaningful position right after I got back from rehab,” he said.
He’s since been promoted.
“All my problems aren’t gone anymore,” Kreitz said. “Now that I’m in recovery, I still have those problems. I just don’t use alcohol to deal with them.”
Kreitz said he’s found that serving others, working with other alcoholics and volunteering in his community has helped with his recovery.
The support he’s received, he said, has helped him reevaluate his purpose in life.
Instead of trying to be a people pleaser, he said, he values balance, trust, taking care of himself, taking care of his family and helping others.
“There is life after crisis,” Kreitz said.
Individuals struggling with suicidal ideations can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or chat at 988Lifeline.org.
*Editor’s Note: This article was published as part of a content-sharing agreement between Army Times and The Fayetteville Observer.