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DOD suicide prevention conference under way

More than 750 gather for the 2009 Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Annual Suicide Prevention Conference Jan. 12 in San Antonio. The conference runs through Jan. 15. (Defense Department photo/Ben Faske)

More than 750 gather for the 2009 Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Annual Suicide Prevention Conference Jan. 12 in San Antonio. The conference runs through Jan. 15. (Defense Department photo/Ben Faske)

Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, who lost a son to suicide, speaks to 750 military and civilian specialists during the 2009 Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Annual Suicide Prevention Conference Jan. 12 in San Antonio. (Defense Department photo/Ben Faske)

Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, who lost a son to suicide, speaks to 750 military and civilian specialists during the 2009 Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Annual Suicide Prevention Conference Jan. 12 in San Antonio. (Defense Department photo/Ben Faske)

Army officials developed an suicide intervention card. (Defense Department photo/Ben Faske)

Army officials developed an suicide intervention card. (Defense Department photo/Ben Faske)

SAN ANTONIO -- An Army staff sergeant who had lost Soldiers in the war zone was called a coward, a wimp and a wuss from a leader when he mentioned he might need psychological help.

It is this type of stigma from toxic leadership that can kill, and that is being examined by scientists, clinicians and specialists in an attempt to eliminate it, said Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree K. Sutton, who is the Army's highest ranking psychiatrist.

Dr. Sutton described the staff sergeant's real experience during her opening remarks of the 2009 Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Annual Suicide Prevention Conference being held Jan. 12 through 15 in San Antonio. More than 750 people -- specialists from the military, VA, and civilian social workers, chaplains, researchers, and family members effected by suicide -- gathered with a common goal of finding ways to reduce suicide.

"The secretary of Defense and chairman of the joint chiefs have both emphasized, 'seeking help is a sign of profound courage and strength. Truly, psychological and spiritual health are just as important for readiness as one's physical health,'" said Dr. Sutton, who is the special assistant to the assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs and Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury director.

Dr. Sutton said a Soldier's ethos of never leaving a fallen comrade behind applies to those with wounds you can't see. She encouraged others to be kinder than necessary, because everyone is battling some kind of problem, and to reach out and intervene early. She said she is concerned with a recent rise in suicide in the Army and Marine Corps.

The four-day conference is filled with breakout session workshops and training focusing on a myriad of suicide-related topics such as crisis negotiation of a suicide in progress, resilience as it relates to suicide prevention, or overall VA suicide prevention strategies and mental health strategic initiatives.

One Soldier, husband and father who experienced the effects of suicide through the loss of his own son, spoke to the conference Jan. 12.

Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham has spoken openly about mental health, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his 21-year old son, Kevin, a top ROTC cadet, hung himself after battling depression.

General Graham said his son feared the repercussion of disclosing his mental health for his career in the Army. His oldest son, Jeff, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2004.

General Graham said he and his wife have chosen to continue to serve "in memory of our sons. Both of my sons died fighting different battles."

General Graham, the commanding general for the Army's Division West and Fort Carson, Colo., asked, "Who is that person who has wounds that you can't see? Should they be ashamed? Are they less of a man or woman? I can think of few subjects more important that this one."

He said people need to talk about the challenges and stigma associated with mental health and thoughts of suicide.

"Leaders, be compassionate. Soldiers, it's OK to get help," General Graham said. "Untreated depression, PTSD or TBI deserve attention. Encourage those who are afflicted to seek help with no embarrassment."

He said suicide can afflict anyone, regardless of rank, stature or wealth.

The general emphasized the "ACE" program for Soldiers -- Ask your buddy, Care for your buddy, Escort your buddy -- and said DOD and VA officials have a national suicide hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

"Don't be afraid to intervene and save a life," General Graham said. "Just being with someone can make a difference."