By Sarah Heynen
DCoE Strategic Communications
Editor’s Note: This account was first published by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. The site is sharing personal accounts from members of the military community relating to the safety and well being of military families.
“He was the last person to take his own life.”
These 10 simple words were repeated by several speakers on the TAPS Suicide Survivor Panel Session at the annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference, and they instantly brought me back to my own experience.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. The day our eyes locked was like one of those movie scenes where the world around stops and everyone else goes into some blurred montage — except it was real life, my life. I fell in love. I found my best friend. We lived on different continents but with frequent communication formed a bond and closeness that I had never experienced.
The next time my world stopped felt like a nightmare. I can also remember it like it was yesterday. The day I felt a pain so deep it didn’t seem possible and the animalistic screams of terror that I let out in pure reaction to the news.
Erskine J. Synge died by suicide Sept. 22, 2006. He was a son, a brother, a friend, a Royal marine combat veteran. He joined the forces at 16, and was a driven and dedicated marine who fought in the early battles in Afghanistan.
When we met he was a floppy-haired backpacker in Australia with a keen sense of humor, a drive for adventure and an absolutely contagious smile. We spoke on several occasions about reintegration and the difficulties he faced upon returning from Afghanistan, but it wasn’t until his death that I learned just how much he was haunted by the war.
His true pain was revealed when his mother uncovered his writings and artwork he kept private, and from friends that came forth sharing recounts of things he had confided. He was the person who walked into a room and immediately made new friends. He cared deeply for how everyone else was doing and never wanted anyone to worry about him. He was the last person you would expect to take his own life.
After the grief began to settle, I became filled with anger that we could send our young men and women into war, but not support them when they returned. I dove into researching suicide prevention and mental health efforts. What I discovered was the enormous amount of resources that do exist and that there are people who care. I made it my mission to make a difference, to spread the word on the services available.
My quest led me to the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury where I’ve worked for the past three years as a communications consultant. I’ve been honored to do my part to make a difference in the lives of service members, veterans and their families by sharing the many resources available to them.
Today, as I look around this year’s conference, I am filled with hope. That statement may seem odd since the rate of suicides continues to climb, but rising numbers also means a rise in attention to a critical topic, in people who care and want to get involved, and in the promotion of the many resources available.
While at the conference, I rode the elevator with a nurse with 33 years of experience who said working in suicide prevention is the most rewarding work she has ever done. She no longer wishes to retire and doesn’t stare at the clock to go home because her work today is incredibly meaningful. She also reminded me, we all have to do our part because not one or two people can solve this problem.
The Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs are incredibly large agencies and often get generalized reactions. It’s important to remember that these agencies are made up of real people with real stories.
Conferences such as the annual suicide prevention conference are full of people who care — service members, veterans, military family members, suicide survivors and health care professionals — all who are dedicated to helping and treating our heroes. The system isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better every day as many are working tirelessly to put an end to this tragic epidemic.
We can’t bring back those who we’ve lost to suicide or change what happened. We can try to save those who haven’t made that irreversible decision, we can help families and friends from ever experiencing the grief that comes with suicide, and we can offer the best prevention and intervention resources available.
Erskine’s life and enthusiastic spirit changed my life and his untimely death changed my life forever. There’s a piece of my heart that will never heal, and the world is missing an extraordinary man. But this isn’t about me, this is about suicide prevention. Suicide isn’t just a military issue; it affects everyone in one way or another. Take a minute to pause and remember those lost, and then honor them by finding a way to help out in your own community.
For nearly 10 years we have been dealing with the challenges associated with ongoing deployments – for some it’s much harder than others. But for all help is available.
Sarah’s blog sadly reminded me that there are still military families who don’t know where to turn when they need help. And that’s just unacceptable.
Our Service Member Support Division is here for all Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and their families. Suicide is not the answer — please reach out for help today. Nothing is so bad that we can’t help you find solutions — you are part of our family. It may not be easy, it may not be quick, but we are here for you. What do you need help with today?