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SAN DIEGO (May 21, 2019) Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Russell Smith speaks with Sailors during an all-hands call aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sarah Villegas/Released)

What We Do Is Hard; It’s OK to Ask for Help

By Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith

Suicide is one of the most complex problems we face, one that has a tremendously detrimental effect on our Navy—and one that, as a self-inflicted casualty, is preventable. We’ve tragically lost Sailors, our teammates and friends, who felt that the only option they had left was a terrible one—one that ended their pain, and yet in doing so inflicted a heavy and interminable burden of confusion and sadness on those of us who remained behind.  

To paint suicide as a simple and straightforward issue would be a gross oversimplification; there are many, disparate reasons someone may make that decision for themselves. Short-term issues that seem insurmountable, or longer-term feelings of loneliness, not belonging or being wanted can make suicide seem like an attractive option. Chronic pain or a perceived hopelessness that makes fighting for a better tomorrow seem futile, perhaps seeking to unburden loved ones or escape from a painful situation. To the one suffering, it’s difficult to understand the actual impacts for those destined to live with a chasm in our hearts, in our units and in our lives—with unanswered questions and a long list of “what ifs.” That is equally difficult.     

So while there may not be one simple reason that we can pursue, we need to do something to change our culture and address this issue in a more substantive way. Feelings of depression and self-harm do not respect rank, and factors like financial health or a lofty leadership title does nothing to inoculate against the ache of loneliness or living in a state of desolation. Hopelessness can stalk anyone, whether they live in the heart of a major city, are stationed on a destroyer or serve in a remote or austere location. We cannot take for granted, based on anything other than a conversation and how we interact with each other, that someone is “ok”—despite appearing to have everything going for them—just as we cannot ignore someone who is clearly struggling with the circumstances of their life. Most of us will find ourselves at risk at some point in our lives, and it is in those moments when we need to connect that a connection must be made.

One common thread seems to be clear: Connecting to one another in meaningful ways works against feelings central to wanting to leave unexpectedly. Finding ways to check on each other—not like you’re fulfilling the day’s errands but in a truly authentic and meaningful way—is a great start. Embracing our shipmates as needed and beloved members of our Navy family: that is something you and I can do, or continue to do, in order to really make a difference. Talk to your Sailors, but also talk to your boss. The burden of leadership can often be a heavy one; it’s ok to ask your boss how she or he is doing, because we all should be genuinely concerned for the welfare of the team, senior and junior alike.  

Share your strength, and draw strength from your shipmates. Reinforce those concepts that our teams rely on as binding elements—trust, honesty, transparency and compassion—which will engender a sense of belonging that will combat the dangerous feelings of isolation. Our Sailors must be reminded, and must know through and through, that we don’t just care for each other; no, we rely on absolutely and need each other to face the rigors of combat, to survive and return home to our loved ones. 

We each swore an oath to face the many determined enemies of our American way of life, and they are indeed formidable. For the Sailor who may be in that place of loneliness, I tell you, shipmate, that I have been you—as many have been, whether they will admit it or not. I would implore you to consider how much your family and your friends need you, and just as importantly how much your shipmates need you in the days, weeks and years to come. 

War will continue to challenge us, and not everyone who sails into battle will survive; you may be the reason that a ship returns victorious, or a squadron returns stateside as a complete unit. You could be the reason a submarine was able to navigate home after conducting a harrowing mission that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, was never there. You are needed, you are necessary, and I hope all of us can stand together to face whatever comes next. What we do is hard; it’s ok not to be ok, but it’s not ok not to ask for help. If you’re not in a great place, come to us and let us help you get back to a mindset where you can again take your place in the fight.

As your shipmates, we will be looking for you, but you don’t have to wait for us to discern that you are the one who must take a knee for a time. Help us, so we can help you, and then we will get after the enemy—together.

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