JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL – In November 2018, Chelsea Porterfield sang the ABC song softly as she rocked her 2-year-old to sleep. In the solitude of her son’s bedroom, her mind drifted and fixated on her husband’s .45 caliber pistol. It was the first time the sergeant first class thought about suicide.
Since she had been accepted to serve as a platoon sergeant in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), Chelsea struggled to strike a balance of time for duty and family.
“I was good enough at work,” she said. “I wasn't good enough at home. I was failing somewhere. … Nothing was good enough.”
She tried to envision how things would be different if she ended her life. Casting the thoughts aside, Porterfield kissed her son as he slept peacefully and pulled the covers over him. She wiped her tears and tried to go to bed.
But the ideas crept back into her mind again the following evening. At 3 a.m. on Nov. 30, no longer able to rest, she drove from her house in Alexandria out into the cool fall air toward Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
When she arrived at her office, dread overwhelmed her as she plunked into her desk chair staring at the black computer screen. She wanted to kill herself and the idea would not go away. “It scared me. I knew I wanted to die,” Porterfield said. “But I didn’t know what I was going to be capable of doing.”
As the day progressed, the outpouring of tears became uncontrollable. Her co-worker, an older NCO, asked if she needed help. Porterfield waved him away, indicating that she was OK.
Embarrassed that she had been seen in such a state, she rushed to her car and drove to Joint Base Myer’s Andrew Rader Health Clinic only to learn it had closed for the day. She took a drag from a cigarette as she sat inside her car. The nearby DC rush hour traffic had begun to simmer as she began the 20-mile drive south to Fort Belvoir.
Checking into the inpatient behavioral health center an hour later, Porterfield sat in the waiting room next to two Marines and another Soldier waiting to be treated. She tried to suppress the tears but could no longer contain them. Doctors would later tell her that she had suffered a panic attack.
“I thought I might kill myself today,” Porterfield whispered to the others.
One of the Marines, an older gunnery sergeant, responded, “Well, it happens to the best of us.”
According to the most recent DOD study, suicides claimed the lives of 305 Soldiers (30.9 incidents per 100,000 personnel) in 2018, up from 29.7 in 2017. Curbing rising suicide numbers continues to be one of the Army’s top priorities.
Last year, the service launched a yearlong pilot program to bolster suicide prevention at three installations, examining factors that lead to individuals taking their own lives. In July 2019, the National Guard also established the Suicide Prevention and Readiness Initiative to identify risk factors that lead to suicide. The Guard, which has the Army’s highest suicide rates, announced that it would renew all 11 of its pilot programs implemented last year, designed to identify and evaluate the best prevention methods.
Soldiers with suicidal thoughts can turn to behavioral treatment facilities at any Army post. They also can contact their first sergeant, supervisor or unit chaplain, and even get help anonymously by calling the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.
The burden of duty
It has been nearly two years since Porterfield left the mental health treatment facility at Fort Belvoir.
With newfound confidence, she adeptly dons her crisp, spotless dress blues and hits her painstakingly rehearsed cadence hard during ceremonial walks. Visitors lock eyes on her as she marches in front of Arlington National Cemetery’s most solemn monument, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Most see more than a solitary Soldier. They recognize her as an icon of the U.S. Armed Forces.
In September 2019, Porterfield became the first woman to lead a marching element onto Arlington, and in the spring became the 38th Sergeant of the Guard.
She will tell you that the pressure of representing her service weighs heavily upon the shoulders. There is significance in each turn of the heel and each unlocking of the M-14 rifle. As a member of The Old Guard, one must be at their sharpest at all times.
Among Arlington’s fallen lie the Soldiers who gave more than the average troops. They are the recipients of Purple Hearts, Silver and Bronze Stars, and the most distinguished of all military decorations, the Medal of Honor. For 83 years, The Old Guard has watched over the Tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Porterfield has essentially grown up in the Army. Since her high school graduation, she has known nothing more than military life. She had spent most of her 20s overseas or on deployment.
As an Army private, then Chelsea Mason had barely settled into her first assignment at a post in Germany when she learned she would be deploying to Iraq for the first time. She later traveled with a unit that helped rebuild the war-torn country on her second deployment.
“I didn't know how to be me,” she observed. “I had spent all of my youth in Iraq. Part of me (will always be there).
“I watched Iraq burn, and I watched it get built back up. There's no ambiguity there … You know, you wear a uniform every day, all day, every day. You don't have to worry about looking cute or being a woman, or wearing your hair a certain way or putting makeup on or dressing up.”
She spent two years as a drill sergeant before working around the clock on police investigations at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. The workload became so burdensome some days, she’d sleep in her office so she would not have to negotiate the Oahu rush-hour traffic.
Early in her career, Porterfield felt the pressure to not only meet the same standards as her male counterparts, but exceed them. To see her now, it would be difficult to understand why she considered suicide. She holds a respected leadership position in one of the Army’s most renowned infantry units. Younger Soldiers turn to her for counsel and advice.
However, those who knew her understood the immense burden she placed on herself. She was no longer the carefree girl who grew up playing on the Texas prairie. The Army had changed her in ways she had not imagined. Years of being the only female in military police units had taken its toll.
Compounding her stress level at home was her husband, a fellow military police Soldier, who didn’t like living in the D.C. metro region where heavy traffic would make a 5-mile drive a 40-minute slog. He pestered her about requesting a new assignment, which didn’t sit well with a go-getter who had spent eight months toiling at work to earn the respect of peers by posting high marks on her ceremonial tests.
By November 2018, it had reached a boiling point. Porterfield began brainstorming on the cleanest method to take her own life.
“I could sense she wasn’t at peace,” Capt. Tessa Knight said of a fall afternoon encounter with Porterfield. “I didn’t know how to do anything about it.”
When Knight, a staff officer in The Old Guard, learned that her battle buddy had considered suicide and had been admitted for treatment, it rattled her. Four months passed since the pair had worked together – Knight as the platoon leader and Porterfield as her platoon sergeant. The two remained in touch through Facebook and occasional office visits.
Knight and Porterfield instantly clicked after meeting in January 2018. Knight, then a first lieutenant, joined The Old Guard three years removed from her graduation from the U.S. Military Academy. Porterfield, a seasoned NCO, was an Old Guard candidate who had most recently served as a Military Police School instructor at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
On the surface, they had many similarities. Both possessed an intense work ethic, holding themselves to seemingly impossible high standards. Both had light blond hair, and the way they joked with each other could easily be mistaken for sisters or lifelong friends, Knight said.
In other aspects they could not have been more different.
Porterfield, in her mid ‘30s, already had 16 years in the Army under her belt. She had been on four deployments and spent three years molding Soldiers as a drill instructor. She also had a family.
Knight, then a 25-year-old single woman and a devout Christian, leaned on her faith to weather difficult circumstances. Instead of turning to a higher power while in distress, Porterfield relied on herself.
Despite their differences, they possessed a mutual respect for one another and had a similar leadership style. Both pushed for giving Soldiers cross-training opportunities such as shadowing troops in other units.
“We came from different backgrounds, but I think we spoke the same language,” Knight said. “We have the same drive.”
Each Soldier joining The Old Guard must complete ceremonial certification. They endure a rigorous process heavily focused on meticulous uniform preparation and the finer points of drill and ceremony. “There’s a lot of pressure, either imposed or self-imposed,” Porterfield said. “You don’t want to be the one that consistently fails.”
By completing ceremonial training, members of The Old Guard earn their distinguished “buff strap,” an honorary Regimental Distinctive Insignia made from rawhide, woven into the black shoulder strap of their knapsacks, a tradition that was adopted since 1792. This distinguished the 3rd Infantry from other units in the Army.
Porterfield decided she wanted to complete the Regimental Sword and Saber certification in less than three months. In the competitive environment of The Old Guard, NCOs must often jostle against each other for coveted positions.
“She took that burden on herself to be like, ‘I must do these things to prove myself somehow in this regiment,’” Knight said. “I'm not sure most people would do that.”
Porterfield hid her depression while masking her feelings behind a smile. She’d be the first Soldier to report for duty, arriving before the sun rose, and she often would stay late to mentor other Soldiers instead of spending time with her infant son. Knight would come to the office to find Porterfield at her desk already at work, sometimes fretting over how leadership looked upon her.
Without doubt, her friend observed, Porterfield understood the burden Old Guard Soldiers must weather in a prestigious assignment. She felt the weight and loneliness of it, and didn’t want to let her mentors down.
Suicide wakeup call
Knight learned how prevalent suicide is in the military during the holidays in December 2018. Then serving as a member of The Old Guard’s military police staff, she returned to her home state of New York to visit family. On Dec. 23, she received a call from her old supervisor and mentor, Maj. Chris Nogle, who had been stationed in Hawaii.
Two months earlier, the two had lunch in Washington and Knight noticed Nogle’s listless body language and became concerned but didn’t press the issue. That winter morning, he texted what he thought was a funny picture of someone who resembled her. He wished Knight a Merry Christmas and asked how her family was doing. She replied all is well and wished him the same holiday greeting.
Later that day, the major died by suicide.
When Knight heard the news from a fellow Soldier in her old unit, she sat shocked. “What more could I have done?” she pondered.
The captain would later text her friend to wish her a happy holidays, but received no response. Three days later, the first sergeant told her that Chelsea had been contemplating suicide and had checked into the behavioral health clinic at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
An internal struggle
Porterfield spent three weeks in the inpatient care facility. Mental health experts listened intently as she recounted her struggles at home, how she perceived military life and the unshakeable memories of unsettling deployments.
“I spent a lot of time wondering ‘how did I get here?” Porterfield said about the setting in which she “couldn’t even shave (her) legs without being supervised.”
Porterfield followed that treatment with a 12-week outpatient program through which she learned to cope with her internal struggles. A psychiatrist said her feelings likely came from a combination of ailments: depression, adjustment disorder and post-traumatic stress. The maelstrom of repressed feelings could no longer be contained on that day in November. She hadn’t dealt with the trauma she experienced from years of going to war.
Treatment helped her sift through the memories she had repressed from her first tour in Iraq – those nightmarish situations when her unit entered Iraqi villages during raids and the endless night patrols across desert terrain where opposing forces could easily stage an ambush.
Her husband removed all firearms from the family’s house. Porterfield promised to alert him or her commander if any harmful feelings resurfaced. She also reached out to her friend to share what happened in November. They talked about her suicidal feelings and the pressures she felt at home. Knight offered assurances that she could turn to her for help anytime it was needed.
“I just was able to express to her what I hadn't been able to express to my mentor, which is you're alive and you're cared for, and I'm here, and I will always be here if you need me,” Knight said.
Rising from despair
The day after the clinic discharged her from inpatient care, Porterfield called a meeting with her platoon. For the first time in her career, she decided to open up about her struggles. She told her Soldiers that she had been hurting for a long time and did not completely understand why. She said she sought treatment, and they could still talk to her the same way as before.
“I didn’t want to walk on eggshells,” she said. “I didn’t want the atmosphere to be thick. I didn’t want any of that.”
Porterfield credited her unit for treating her with the same respect. When they had questions about her struggles, she willingly answered. To her surprise, other Soldiers shared that family members and friends had similar thoughts to harm themselves and asked where to seek help. The conversation set the foundation for her transition back to work three months later.
Her therapy sessions taught her about self-awareness; how to identify feelings that could lead to suicidal thoughts. She also received training on cognitive behavioral therapy and how to cope with harmful feelings.
Today, Porterfield remains open about her bout with suicide. She has become a spokesperson for a veteran survivor group, letting others know there are places to seek help. Veterans battling suicide can seek assistance 24/7 through veteranscrisisline.net/chat or by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1 or sending a text to 838255.
“The bravest thing I ever did,” Porterfield summarily admitted, “was choosing to live when I wanted to die.”
Once Porterfield completes sentinel training, she will be the sixth female to earn the Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge. Her husband retired last November after 20 years in the Army.
In her hardest days that fall and winter, she remembered how her platoon and her commanders at The Old Guard accepted her without malice or judgement.
“I was worried about being treated differently or judged by my command team and my Soldiers,” Porterfield said. “Luckily, neither of that happened.”
Porterfield’s greatest weapon against suicide lies at home. Her son, now nearly 4 years old, already has an expansive vocabulary for his age and enjoys running around outdoors like his mother did as a child. She shudders when thinking she could have ever left him. She looks at her son and his curly blond locks whenever she needs to remind herself why she must go on. She has finally found even ground between duty and family, assuring that she spends equal time with both.
“He's just really, really smart,” Porterfield said of her son. “What did he say yesterday? I was FaceTiming with him, and it was something like, ‘Mommy, do you have balance?’ I was like, ‘Yes, I do have balance.’”