Suicide in the Navy: An Uncomfortable Reality
Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class William Ford
Joe Borja joined the Navy in 2000 from the island territory of Guam. Young, optimistic, and ready to take on the challenges of service, he attended boot camp, “A” school, and served aboard ship before returning to his home on Guam where he met up with his old friend, now Chief Sel. Aviation Support Equipment Technician Mark Garin.
“He loved the Navy,” said Garin.
Borja’s optimism and sea stories convinced Garin and three of his other friends that the Navy was where they wanted to be, and they enlisted. Borja’s career was on the fast track, adding a third chevron to his crow in just seven short years. His personal life was no different. He married his wife, Christine, and they gave birth to a baby girl.
Despite a stable and secure future, Garin began to notice behavioral changes in his friend. Though Borja had never been a heavy drinker in the past, he began to abuse alcohol and gave away a lot of his personal items, claiming that he wouldn’t need them anymore.
“Later that same year he visited our friend in Virginia, and it was a lot of the same story,” said Garin. “He just wanted to drink and talk about the past, and how much better everything used to be.”
In 2007, Borja came to visit Garin in Washington.
“He loved telling stories about the past and asking how everything was going with me, but he never really talked about his current situation. Everything seemed pretty normal at the time,” said Garin.
That visit would be the last time he saw his friend.
“The day after he got back home from his trip, he killed himself,” said an emotional Garin. “I didn’t notice any of the signs; it was just us catching up and talking about old times.”
September is Suicide Awareness Month, and the statistics on suicide in the military are sobering. According to a 2016 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, suicide became the leading cause of death throughout the U.S. military in 2014, exceeding combat, illness, homicide, and vehicular accidents with 349 suicides – nearly one every day. That same year, 7,400 veterans took their own lives. Those deaths totaled 18 percent of all suicides in America, despite veterans making up only nine percent of the population.
There is a staggering amount of data on suicide, but the warning signs can be difficult to identify. Garin’s friend had a seemingly normal, happy life. Substance abuse and erratic behavior only seemed like red flags in the shocking aftermath.
“IS PATH WARM” is an acronym designed to help Sailors remember the immediate warning signs of suicide. I is for Ideation, or thoughts of suicide; S is for substance abuse, or increased alcohol or drug use; P is for purposelessness, or having no sense of purpose in life; A is for anxiety, or agitation, nightmares and poor sleeping habits; T is for trapped, or feeling like there is no way out of a situation; H is for hopelessness, or having no hope for one’s self or the future; W is for withdrawal, or isolating one’s self from friends and family; A is for anger, or feeling of uncontrollable rage; R is for recklessness, or acting without regard for the future; M is for mood changes, or a dramatic, unstable mood.
Unfortunately, knowing the numbers and warning signs associated with suicide is not enough to prevent it. Suicide is not a comfortable conversation for most, especially for someone who is considering it. It may feel awkward to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide, but it could be the difference between life and death. A suicidal person may not be in the position to ask for help, and it is up to the people around them to start that conversation. Sailors should do a better job of getting to know one another, so that they can be there for that Sailor in their darkest hour.
“First and foremost it starts with knowing your friends,” said Lt. j.g. Ryan Albano, a chaplain aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). “Friendship is like a screw; the deeper your friendship gets, the more you get to know each other, the more that trust and foundation begins to grow. Trust is extremely valuable when it comes to sharing intimate details about our lives. The more threads of the screw we build into our relationships, the more trust we have that that person will be there when the time comes.”
Genuinely being there for one another is the key. Empathize with someone, even if you don’t completely understand their situation, and get that person to the proper resources.
Sailors should educate themselves on the signs related to suicide, to notice when their friend or colleague starts heading down a dark path, and to be courageous enough to simply talk to and listen to that Sailor during their time of need.
“Just starting that simple conversation with someone who is struggling could let them know that someone cares about them. Even if you have to ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves. That way you can get them the appropriate amount of help,” said Garin. “When people really have their low points, they can’t see the people that care about them. They might look at their LPO, their Chief or DIVO and think, ‘What do they care?’ Make some time in your day to get to know someone, find out what makes them go, so that maybe you can be there for them the day they just can’t go anymore. Every simple act matters.”
To act is the most crucial element in preventing a suicide. “ACT” has even been turned into an acronym to help Sailors remember what they should do if they identify a shipmate in danger of harming themselves. A is for ask, ask that Sailor if they are indeed considering suicide; C is for care, to empathize with that Sailor’s situation; T is for treat, get that Sailor the proper treatment necessary to prevent them from harming themselves or others.
For more information visit www.militaryonesource.mil, Command Religious Ministries Department (CRMD), or the command Drug and Alcohol Program Advisor (DAPA).