Chaplains on frontline in battle against military suicides

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Katina Harris, a soldier with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), writes out the different sections of the suicide intervention model during an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training course held on Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, July 29. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Justin A. Moeller, 4th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs, via

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WAXAHACHIE—For military personnel, the fight rages well beyond the battlefield, and chaplains are on the frontlines.

In 2012, military suicides hit a record high since the armed forces began tracking such tragedies. Through April this year, the U.S. military recorded 161 potential suicides—a pace of about one suicide every 18 hours.

bgct chaplains325Texas Baptists have stepped up their efforts to combat the suicide epidemic by offering Applied Suicide Intervention Skill Training.Many times, chaplains are the first wave of defense against suicide, said U.S. Navy Chaplain Fred McGuffin, who is assigned to the Marine Corps in New Orleans. Junior chaplains “deal with it often.”

Military personnel turn to chaplains because they know them, McGuffin said. Chaplains spend time with the personnel they’re assigned to serve, get to know them and build trust.

When something troubling takes place, troops understand they can go confidentially to a chaplain. If a soldier, sailor, Marine or airman reports suicidal thoughts to any other military personnel, it will be noted on their record.

“We are already known as the helping agent in the unit,” McGuffin said.

Tools for chaplains

Texas Baptists have stepped up their efforts to combat the suicide epidemic by offering Applied Suicide Intervention Skill Training—ASIST—to all of its nearly 800 endorsed chaplains, including about 200 who serve in the military. The program provides tools for chaplains to discern root issues in people’s lives that may lead to suicidal thoughts and work toward a resolution.

“Many times, chaplains are the first responders, and this equips them to know how to figure out if suicide is the real issue and how to help,” McGuffin said before helping teach the training during Texas Baptists’ recent retreat for chaplains.

Ministering in a suicidal situation requires bravery, said Bobby Smith, director of Texas Baptists’ chaplaincy relations. Smith has taught ASIST for 10 years. Asking someone if they’re considering harming themselves and responding appropriately is difficult for any minister, he noted.

Providing a format

“Suicide is an issue all chaplains have to face and deal with at some point in their ministries,” Smith said. “Most pastors will have to deal with it. That is a reality. There is very little training to help people understand how to minister in that situation. ASIST enables them to have the courage and a format to address suicide when they recognize it in someone else’s life.”

An increase in military suicides reflects a surge in suicides throughout the country, Smith noted. More people now die of suicide than car accidents annually. Suicide among middle-aged people rose nearly 30 percent from 1999 to 2010.

 “It’s becoming an acute need everywhere,” he said. “I have more and more people talking to me about this situation. We’re living in a society that’s taking away hope. When people lose hope, that’s when they consider suicide. They see no hope for a better tomorrow.”

Immediate relevance

Chaplain Scott Speight of the Army Reserves, who co-taught the ASIST class with McGuffin, seeks to be part of the solution in the military. Each time he teaches the program, someone deals with suicide within a few weeks. The last time Speight taught ASIST, a chaplain called him 24 hours later to tell how it helped him minister to someone.

“I hear the numbers,” Speight said. “I see the need of how many soldiers, how many Navy men, how many Marines are committing suicide each day.”

Texas Baptists’ chaplaincy program and access to the ASIST training program is made possible by gifts to missions through the Texas Baptist Cooperative Program. Smith and other chaplaincy leaders are willing to train pastors and church leaders in ASIST, as well. For more information about Texas Baptists chaplaincy or the ASIST training, call (888) 244-9400. 

“Texas Baptist chaplains are servants of churches and associations of Texas,” he said. “We want to help meet their training needs.”

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