By Mary Markos,
Special to American Forces Press Service
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — Army Capt. Emily Stehr, a physical therapist with
the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, is in the business of healing. But
five months after returning from Iraq, she was struggling with her own
internal wounds of war that had not healed. She decided to kill herself.
Capt. Emily Stehr, a physical
therapist with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, contemplated committing
suicide after returning from Iraq. She decided to share her
story in hopes others will see that reaching out for help is not
only OK, but makes for a better Soldier.
What stopped Stehr was not the physical pain she would
have endured, but the realization of the emotional pain she would
inflict on the children of her close friends when their parents would
tell them, “Aunt Emily is not around because she killed herself.”
“I was not willing to put that pain on those children,” Stehr said. “I’d
inflict the pain on my mom, my dad, all my other loved ones; but those
kids, I can’t do it.”
What Stehr did was check into Landstuhl (Germany) Regional Medical
Center and began the process of healing.
“I like to think of (suicide) like cancer,” she said. “I did not even
know I was sick. I just kept waiting for me to return to normal, and it
never happened. Stuff kept escalating until it was either, I’ll be dead
or I’ll get treatment.”
“Looking back,” she continued, “I can see the whole process, but when
you’re going through something like that, you’re so blind because you’re
in your shell.”
Part of her healing process was coming out of her shell and finding what
she called the “tumor,” or reason for her emotional pain and suicidal
"If you are hurting in some way, if something's on your
heart, or something's on your mind, reach out. If you hold
it in, it won't do you any good."
Commander, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment
“I had to go back and root out what was causing the
maladaptive behavior, the tumor,” she said. “Ultimately, unless you deal
with that, it’s always going to plague you. You have to deal with it
Dealing with the cause of her suicidal ideas meant dealing with the
anger, grief and emotional pain Stehr said she felt after returning from
“For me, it was an accumulative trauma — watching patients die,” Stehr
said. “I had a patient kill himself. We lost 33 people when we were down
there. It is hard to see again and again and again. ... In my mind, I
never really left Iraq.”
Part of her struggle to return to her “pre-deployment” self, she said,
included overcoming the stigma associated with seeking mental health
care and discussing suicide.
“Nobody really wants to talk about suicide. People don’t know what to
say,” Stehr said. “There’s shame (and) embarrassment. I really thought
that I was weak. I bought into the whole stigma that people who are
suicidal or have mental issues are weak.”
Army leaders have acknowledged the stigma associated with seeking mental
health treatment and have taken steps to combat that stigma as well as
suicide in the service’s ranks.
Although the number of suicides in the U.S. Army Europe rose from four
in 2007 to seven in 2008, the effects of the Army’s efforts to eliminate
the stigma of seeking treatment were evident in an informal poll taken
Aug. 25 at U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr. Of nearly 60 Soldiers polled,
51 percent said there no longer is a stigma associated with seeking
help, and 62 percent said those who seek mental help are not seen as
weak. At least one Soldier attributed this to “the change in Army
It is a change that starts with the leadership, said Col. James
Blackburn, commander of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment.
“Fundamentally, as leaders, we have to recognize there’s a challenge,
and in this case the challenge is cultural,” he said. “We are in the
profession of change, changing the culture.”
With the cultural change, Blackburn and other regiment leaders supported
Stehr in her decision to talk to others about her suicidal thoughts.
Stress management topic for luncheon
A no-host Suicide
Awareness Luncheon will be held from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesday,
Sept. 29 at McCoy’s, building 1571.
The installation Religious Support Office (RSO) will be the host
organization. The topic will be Stress Management, with Chaplain
(Lt. Col.) James D. Brown, being the guest speaker.
For more information, call the RSO at 608-388-3528.
“I strongly feel Emily’s brave move to share her story
with the public is exactly what the Army needs to decrease the stigma
associated with seeking help,” Blackburn said. “By stepping forward, she
is showing other Soldiers they are not alone, and it is OK to talk about
what is troubling them.
“We’ve got to make people understand,” he continued. “Scars — you’ve got
them, I’ve got them, we’ve all got them. Some are visible. Some are not
visible. Everybody deserves a chance to be successful. Part of that is
tearing down the stigma associated with any illness, any scar, that you
incur while in the Army, or even before you came in. You are ours now,
and we will put you in a position to be successful.”
Talking about mental illness and suicide is the only way to prevent
others from taking their lives, Stehr said.
“It has nothing to do with being strong or being weak; you’re sick,” she
said. “The correct philosophy is that you’re a human, and sometimes crap
happens, and you have pain. But you need to deal with your pain. Get
help when you need it. Take care of yourself emotionally, mentally,
psychologically. It’s going to make you a better Soldier.”
Blackburn agreed, saying Soldiers who seek help “are strong.” “They’re
strong because they are able to examine themselves and know there’s
something wrong,” he said. “Most people generally don’t say, ‘I have a
problem.’ And this population of our Soldiers (is) strong because they
have the fortitude to do a self-examination, and they know the result.
They don’t conceal it, they let it out. That’s a strong population, not
a weak one.”
To stay strong, Stehr said, all Soldiers need to offer support and be
willing to listen and talk. But, she said, it is not as easy as just
asking people if they are going to hurt themselves.
“It is never that easy. There is no ‘easy’ about any of this,” she said.
“Encourage that person, and be there for them. The more we talk about
it, the better off we are.”
Blackburn encourages Soldiers to reach out and get the help they need.
“If you are hurting in some way, if something’s on your heart, or
something’s on your mind, reach out,” he said.
“If you hold it in, it won’t do you any good,” he added. “It won’t do
your immediate family any good. It won’t do your extended family any
good. And it certainly won’t do your battle buddy any good. We are here
to help you.”
(Markos works in the U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Public Affairs
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