Suicide prevention is the responsibility of each individual Marine — a point retired colonel and Medal of Honor recipient Harvey "Barney" Barnum said he tried to drive home during a recent meet-and-greet aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
"…[It] is hard enough when you lose a Marine, an American," Barnum said after the two day visit Jan. 20 and 21 with fellow Medal of Honor recipient retired Army Maj. Drew Dix. "That's tough, but when you lose one because of suicide, that's terrible."
Recognizing and treating depression was among the topics Barnum discussed with Marines during his tour of the base, but it remains forefront on his mind a week later. It's one he's come across before, Barnum said, recalling interviewing a Marine who admitted noticing his roommate seemed off in the days before committing suicide.
Barnum said he asked the Marine why he didn't intervene.
"I didn't want to embarrass him," he said the Marine replied.
Marines must get over that macho image, said Barnum, who received the Medal of Honor for taking command of a rifle company during heavy fighting in Vietnam's Quang Tin province in 1965. According to his citation, Barnum organized a counterattack, cleared brush for an emergency medevac and coordinated air support for the embattled Marines.
"You're a Rambo; you're a Marine … well, you're a weapon, a machine that is not at 100 percent because you need some help," he said. "If you need some help, go get it."
His trip to Camp Lejeune, part of the Warrior Talks program, came as Congress debated the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named after a Marine veteran who committed suicide in 2011. The bill would mandate the creation of a VA website dedicated to the mental health resources available for former service members.
Supporters hope the one-stop shop will curb the estimated 22 veterans who commit suicide every day.
Barnum, though, takes a dim view of the approach and other attempts to pass legislation stemming suicides among active and former troops. You can't dictate suicide prevention from Washington, he said.
Instead, he encourages Marines to talk about it and lend — or reach for — a helping hand when necessary.
"You've got to talk to your troops, confide in them and let them confide in you," Barnum said. "It's a leadership issue, I think, but every single Marine has got to be on the [lookout] for when his buddy, who he knows very well, starts displaying symptoms of possible suicide. He's got to get that kid help."
That's in line with what Corps officials advised Marines as the holidays approached. Though the rate among active service members has fell sharply before stabilizing in recent years, preventing suicides remains a priority among top brass.
An administrative message "call to action" released in December advised Marines of the resources the Corps has available for them, including programs like suicide hotlines and family counseling. It also urged Marines to keep tabs on one another and reminded leaders to identify potential warning signs.
"Suicide is a complex problem that requires 24/7, 'all-hands' engaged and compassionate leadership," reads the document.
Barnum said the Marines he visited with — the tour included several public speaking engagements as well as trips out to work spaces — took his message well.
"Troops like being talked to like men," he said. "You talk right at them and you tell them you expect something of them."
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