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Massachusetts Guard Implements Suicide Prevention Program 
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(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Donald Veitch) 

Master Sgt. James Owens watches a scene play out from the U.S. Army’s new interactive suicide prevention training program, while attending a training session at Joint Force Headquarters – Milford, Massachusetts, March 4, 2008. During the month of March, the Army conducted a stand-down from normal training to ensure all Soldiers received suicide prevention training. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Don Veitch)

By Army Sgt. James Lally, Joint Force Headquarters - Massachusetts Public Affairs 

MILFORD, Mass. The Massachusetts National Guard kicked off another round of an aggressive suicide prevention campaign from its headquarters here, March 17, 2009.

The strategy of the U.S. Army’s Suicide Prevention Program includes efforts to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care; improve access to behavioral health providers; and raise the awareness of junior leaders while instilling intervention skills.

An Army-wide “stand down” was ordered for the past month so that commands and individual units could take part in training sessions on how to recognize and try to prevent suicides after the Army reported an all-time high of 143 Soldiers who committed suicide in 2008.

The Adjutant General of the Massachusetts National Guard, Maj. Gen. Joseph C. Carter, supported the "stand down" so that the leaders of every Massachusetts Army National Guard unit could make teaching this aggressive suicide-prevention campaign their top priority.

“The reason I directed a ‘stand down’ was to ensure that leaders would have the time they need to implement this important program that will enable our Soldiers, civilians, and family members to take care of each other. The people who comprise our total force are our greatest resource; therefore, we need to ensure that they have every available tool to take care of themselves,” said Carter.

The Massachusetts Army National Guard will complete the training in three phases. During the first phase, trainers instruct senior leaders how to implement the program using the Army’s train-the-trainer approach. In turn, they will teach the program to subordinate leaders and will be responsible for ensuring that every Massachusetts Army National Guard Soldier participates.

The second phase incorporates a broader training session for Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians, and family members. In this phase, leaders and family members will learn to be aware of risk factors, suicidal behavior warning signs, and how to intervene on a Soldier’s behalf.

“It is important to include Army civilians into this training because they work with Soldiers before and after they have deployed; therefore, they may be able to recognize changes in their behavior,” said Maj. Dana P. Sanders-Udo, commander of Headquarters Detachment, Joint Force Headquarters, Massachusetts Army National Guard. 

The third phase, which will run concurrently with phases one and two, will establish an annual suicide prevention training requirement as well as a deployment support cycle. 

The training is intended to be delivered to most Soldiers by their squad leaders, who are the Noncommissioned Officers who provide direct leadership to Soldiers whether they are learning first aid during a drill weekend or on a combat patrol overseas.

The program highlights the roles and responsibilities of first-line leaders and peers to identify and intervene on behalf of Soldiers who may be at risk. This training is dependent on the personal connections that exist between Soldiers, and also between Soldiers and their families. These relationships are important because no one can gauge a Soldiers emotional state better than their spouse, best friend or “battle buddy.”

Many family members will receive the training from members of the Massachusetts National Guard’s Family Program Office. The Family Program staff establishes ongoing communication, involvement and support between the National Guard and Guard Families during times of deployment and non-deployment.

The program of instruction is packaged in an interactive DVD, titled “Beyond the Front,” that was produced by Lincoln University and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. The DVD shows the trainees emotional scenarios performed by actors. After each scene, the facilitator presents the trainees with a few options to choose from. Each choice has consequences and the trainees learn which methods of intervention are the most productive.

Master Sgt. Stephen Kelsch, acting first sergeant of Headquarters Detachment, Joint Force Headquarters, Massachusetts Army National Guard, has facilitated the training for not only his unit but also many Guardsmen who work full time for the National Guard.

“During the training a few Soldiers had reactions to it and we referred them to behavioral health care. If this training can save even one life it is worth it,” said Kelsch.

To ensure that this training reaches more than 6,000 Massachusetts Guardsmen plus many of their family members in a relatively short period of time is challenging. To make it all happen, commanders will use video teleconferencing to permit some Soldiers to participate remotely from several armories across the state.

Joe Montiverdi, the distance learning manager at the Massachusetts National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters said, “This medium is the best way to train a lot of people at one time. We have seven distance learning classrooms across the state. They are normally used for training Soldiers using online training resources.”

The training is scheduled to be completed by all Massachusetts Army National Guard Soldiers by July 15, 2009.