FORT LEE, Va. – Following an Operation Desert Storm redeployment, a Fort Riley, Kan., Soldier told a young chaplain’s assistant he was thinking of harming himself.
“‘Come on, let me get you an appointment with the chaplain,’” she responded.
Her friend, a notorious kidder, said he was “joking,” so the chaplain’s assistant declined to press the issue any further. That was a mistake, she admitted.
“Three days later, he killed himself.”
The person who experienced that tragedy – Army Logistics University Support Battalion Chaplain (Capt.) Kimberly Ingram – has since forgiven herself but said the episode illustrates how warning signs, however vague, often serve as preludes to suicide attempts. In hindsight, Ingram said intervention was warranted because “killing yourself is something you don’t joke about.”
The death of her battle buddy became the impetus for a career-long crusade to save as many lives as possible from suicide. “His story, like so many others, is the catalyst that keeps me wanting to snuff out this epidemic,” Ingram said.
The Army lost 305 Soldiers to suicide in 2018, according to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. Efforts to end this problem include September’s annual observance of Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, with this year’s theme being “Be There Early to Build Hope.”
Ingram often tells her friend’s story during briefings to students starting classes at ALU, using it to convey how everyday problems – those involving relationships, finances, social isolation and the workplace, for example – can lead to stress, struggle and hardship.
In her battle buddy’s case, Ingram later found out “his fiancée had married someone else; was pregnant by the gentleman; sent him letters saying, ‘don’t contact me anymore;’ and took all of his money,” she recalled. “But that’s not something he shared with us because he wasn’t that type of person.”
Her friend, however, did provide what Ingram calls a “red flag” or warning sign. His “joke” was in fact his plan of execution. Other red flags include individuals who know of family members, friends or companions who have taken their lives; have experienced a recent breakup or loss of a family member; have expressed a sense of hopelessness; and have exhibited a change in demeanor or personality following a significant life-changing experience.
Ingram has a deep knowledge of red flags not only through her experiences at Fort Riley but also through counseling hundreds of military members as a chaplain. The connection also gouges down to a personal level that emerged following the death of her beloved father, Cardell G. Norris, in 2012.
“My dad was my hero,” she said of the Army retiree. “I am the only girl and the baby. My brothers are four and eight years older. My family has always been very close … but it felt like the glue had come apart when he passed.”
Ingram, assigned to a National Guard unit at the time, never tried to commit suicide but began to withdraw. She was just going through the motions fulfilling her duties as chaplain but was conflicted internally and seethed inside.
“I was really angry with God because he had me praying for him (her father) … and then he took him,” she said.
In 2014, just before the chaplain was to teach a class on suicide for Petersburg’s 276th Engineer Battalion, the red flags rippled and whipped her into a state of clarity and awareness.
“I had this checklist, and I was going through it,” she recalled, noting it was similar to the red flags she warns students about today. “It read: ‘isolate self’ – check; ‘stop taking phone calls with friends and loved ones’ – check. It scared me because I saw myself.”
Alarmed, Ingram picked up the phone and called Military OneSource, an online information and support network. The representative who answered the call made arrangements for her to see a counselor.
“I talked with (the counselor), and I know that’s why I’m here today,” Ingram said, noting she eventually got to the point of sharing her emotions.
Ingram said individuals who are in proximity to those exhibiting warning signs should “ask, care, escort” – asking whether they have a plan of execution; caring enough to lend an ear, remove weapons or pharmaceuticals from the immediate area, and get them help; and escorting them to a chaplain, case worker or emergency room.
Ingram pointed out that engagement – connecting with people, empathizing with them and knowing their issues – is one of the keys to preventing suicide.
“It’s all about relationships,” she said. “Everyone needs a good support system and good relationships – for instance, a best friend who they can call; who can talk them through things. Sometimes, it’s just about conversation and communicating.”
Ingram said as a result of therapy, she began to share her feelings, reaching out to family and friends to reconstruct the bonds she once had. She also reconciled the relationship with her maker.
“At one point, when it was all said and done, God answered me,” she said. “I couldn’t hear him at first. He said, ‘I did what you asked me to do when you prayed.’ My dad was a virile man, a big man. He wouldn’t have wanted us to take care of him. He took care of us. That’s who he was. He was a man, and he didn’t want us to have to take care of him. ... He’s not suffering anymore.”
Lastly, Ingram said faith should not be overlooked as part of a strong support system.
“Spirituality can play an important role,” she said. “Whether you attend church, synagogue or mosque, we need to believe in something greater than ourselves; something we can tap into when we need strength.”
Such as the “strength” to snuff out suicide.
For more information about the Army’s suicide prevention program, visit www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide. Other sources of support include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline/Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647.