"Shoulder to Shoulder" - Army Suicide Awareness PSA

A leader in my life once made a comment on the importance of the 'active' act of thinking and its place in daily life when he said 'Give time to your thoughts and explore what they have to tell you. In a world of distractions, they are often left waiting to be heard.

In the case of this PSA, I had over four years to sit and listen.  

Living on a military base in Iraq in 2009, immersed in the military culture, I first became aware of the amount of stress so many people carried around on a deployment. I would watch a soldier come in to the USO to make a phone call, a hint of a smile on their face, and come out looking defeated. It wasn't the war outside their door that took the largest toll, but rather the battle of straddling two worlds. They had wives and husbands and children and finances and ups and downs and responsibilities and commitments and duty. A hundred bright lights all blindly shining for attention from half way across the world. 

I observed as military men and women buckled down and handled business. For some, this was just another rodeo, and for others, they found themselves completely unprepared. During this time, I saw a sharp increase in resources become available to soldiers dealing with stress. Intrigued at the new buildings popping up solely dedicated to mental wellness, I wondered, why now? Six years after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and here is an Army-wide push on addressing this issue? What was behind the initiative? The answer was surprising.

From 2008 to 2012, the Army has seen an over 27% increase in the amount of suicides sustained per year. With 182 suicides in 2012 alone, that equates to one every other day. To date, the United States has lost more service members to suicide then they have in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. These statistics took me off guard. I hadn't known anyone who had committed suicide while deployed, or even heard about it. I learned that statistically speaking, the majority of these suicides were taking place after soldiers returned home. Whatever stresses they were dealing with from abroad were only amplified upon seeing them face to face on a daily basis. Around this same time, I started to think about shooting a PSA. I had a lose concept, but the timing and resources weren't in place and I moved on to Afghanistan. 

While working on a story in Kuwait, I met an very talented soldier, SPC James Hoopes. An artist, SPC Hoopes had worked on a large mural spanning multiple 't-walls' that highlighted the history of the USO. Sitting down with Hoopes later that evening, the discussion found its way back to the idea of a suicide PSA. Being the incredibly talented artist that he is, he offered to draw out the concept in storyboard form to help work towards putting it into action. 

Fast-forward two years, and though there had been some close calls, the PSA still hadn't been made, the entire concept having drifted to the distant backseat of things I was giving my attention to. 

Then I received an email that would tear the idea of suicide from the backseat, throwing it violently into the forefront of my mind. A good friend of mine was gone, and he didn't need to be.  



Around the same time, I learned that the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Division were hosting an upcoming day dedicated to Suicide Awareness. It would consist of a keynote speaker, training, breakout sessions, and would end on a lighter note with a 5k supported by the USO. The timing of everything seemed ordained in many ways. 

Making contact with USO Center Manager, Tiffany Banks, and 1ABCT PAO NCOIC SSG Craig Cantrell, they were excited to be able to team up and create something that would add to the day as well as find use beyond the event.

SSG Cantrell was able to organize everything, from personnel to locations to vehicles and even portable power in case it was needed. Meeting up the day before the shoot with the cast, I got the impression that being a part of the video was what is deemed in the military as 'mandatory fun'. I explained the concept as best as I could, and hoped for the best. 

The day of the shoot was a perfect Kuwaiti day, blistering hot and a massive sandstorm blowing dirt and debris everywhere. Who wouldn't want to stand outside for hours on end, take after take? SSG Cantrell and I worked as fast as we could, balancing speed and performance. Our star performer, PFC Ramsey Graham, got the worst of it. Having to take his sunglasses off for every take, his eyes were blasted with sand. The video doesn't truly convey just how intense the blowing wind and heat were. 30 knot winds and 116° (47°C) heat, these men and women were certainly putting up with much more than most actors would ever have to bear. 

Always mission-focused, every soldier involved shook off the weather as just another day in Kuwait, and we were able to get everything we needed well before sunset. With the last take complete, I considered this perfect setting, the wind howling, my mouth full of sand, and my clothes soaked in sweat. A group of soldiers ready to head back to their bunks and rinse the day off. I thought of my friend, gone before his time, and wondered how many soldiers on that base alone were struggling. While this may be only one short clip, I earnestly pray that the work we have done may move even one person ever so slightly closer to talking to someone. To opening up and admitting that 'everything is not alright', and that they would know that there will be no judgement when they do. 

Have you witnessed these struggles firsthand? Have you dealt with these same issues in your own life but found the guidance you needed through the hard times? I'd love to hear about how you made it through below. In my own hard times, I cling to the truth and understanding that, "This too shall pass." Life has a way of being the worst sometimes, but the crazy thing is it always has a way of getting better. 


 Behind the Scenes shots courtesy of SPC Andrew Ingram. Storyboard illustrations courtesy of James Hoopes.