CSM VanKleeck tells his story for new suicide prevention awareness campaign
The Army Substance and Abuse Program hosted its annual Suicide Prevention Awareness event Aug. 29 at the Main Post Chapel to kick off the national month of observance.
The event, themed “Choose to Live,” saw large attendance from noncommissioned officers and the installation’s senior leadership, including Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, commanding general of the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood, and Command Sgt. Maj. James Breckinridge.
ASAP, the U.S. Army Ready and Resilient Campaign and the American Red Cross, among others, set up informational booths prior to the first speaker.
Martin offered remarks and cited statistics on the suicides of U.S. service members.
“We are here to bring attention to this issue, engage in dialogue that removes stigma, and to initiate change in how we address suicide and suicidal thoughts,” she said. “Suicidal thoughts don’t discriminate by profession or service, nor by rank, race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Nor do they discriminate between our Veteran, Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve populations.”
In 2018, 321 active duty service members took their own lives. This includes 138 Soldiers, 68 Sailors, 58 Airmen and 57 Marines.
She asked for those in attendance to join her in preventing further suicides.
“Suicide prevention is an ongoing effort,” she said. “We have work to do as a military and as a post within our chain of command, within our battle-buddy teams and within ourselves. I hope you’ll commit to this fight with me.”
Martin introduced Command Sgt. Maj. Jason VanKleeck, who shared his own story of battling severe depression and ultimately choosing to live.
“I got to a real low point,” VanKleeck said. “That depression was so deep and terrible — I can’t even explain it.”
The depression, he said, was due to what came after being in several consecutive fast-paced, high-stress assignments.
“For me, it was my brain didn’t know what to do when it was time to slow down,” he told the GUIDON in an interview following his speech.
VanKleeck expanded on the theme of the event.
“We, as a society, tend to focus on those that did kill themselves, and while it’s important to memorialize those people and it’s sad that they made that decision, there’s a whole demographic of people that win this fight every day,” he said. “I think the value is that they’re survivors, and they have a story to tell.”
He said it is up to leadership to set the tone for future generations of Soldiers fighting the same battles he did when he was just 26.
“It does take leaders like myself to let those younger generations and even our peers know that ‘it’s OK, you have a story to tell,’” he said. “We have to be willing to be the example and not act like it doesn’t affect us.”
But the message of survival extends beyond the military, VanKleeck said, although he would like to see it spread Army-wide.
“If the civilian populace was able to see celebrity so-and-so on a billboard or a poster with the same type of story, and with that same mantra of ‘Choose to Live,’ that’s powerful,” he said. “It’s powerful to the civilian populace to see people they look up to and know that they struggle, too.”