FORT LEONARD WOOD — In 2007, Jason VanKleeck was a drill sergeant in the Army, moving up the ranks and taking on new jobs.
But depression led to suicidal thoughts and nearly ended his life.
He got help, and now is sharing his story with fellow soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood as part of a suicide prevention and mental health education program called “I Chose To Live.”
The focus of the effort is on soldiers who struggled with suicidal thoughts but got help. VanKleeck, now a sergeant major, said too often the focus is on those who did kill themselves.
“It’s important to memorialize them, and it’s sad that they made that decision,” VanKleeck said. “But there’s a whole demographic of people that win this fight every day. And we’re not capturing the story of those people to let those who come after us that they are not the only ones that have that struggle.”
VanKleeck said it’s important for survivors to tell their story to help people be proactive and get help, which is the opposite of the standard approach.
“Instead we are very reactive in the sense of why are we not finding the people who did survive and say, 'What’s your story?' So the next person knows they are not the only one, and there is a way to get through it,” VanKleeck said.
The program includes posters featuring soldiers of all ranks and backgrounds who have struggled with suicidal thoughts and got help. They are also speaking at various events on base.
The commander at Fort Leonard Wood, Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, is applauding the approach to address suicide head-on.
“We need to bring attention to this issue, engage in dialogue that removes stigma, and to initiate change in how we address suicide and suicidal thoughts,” Martin said.
VanKleeck hopes the program gets picked up by other military bases around the country. Nationwide, more than 300 active-duty service members died by suicide in 2018.
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