This article originally ran in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 4, 2017.
By: Chief John D. Miller, Fifth Coast Guard District
The last drill weekend that she saw Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Christopher Trujillo-Daza alive, Petty Officer 2nd Class Natalie Crane ate lunch with her coxswain and section leader.
He was sitting on the boat, and we were eating, and he said, "This right here, being on a boat with buddies? This makes it all worth it," Crane remembered.
A week later, Trujillo-Daza was dead; a victim of suicide. Crane and her fellow reservists at Port Security Unit 313 in Everett, Wash., were stunned. What had happened in the intervening days? What else could they have done to prevent it?
In the last five years, ten Coast Guard reservists have died by suicide, an average of two a year. That percentage is lower than that of other military branches and on par with the civilian suicide rate. It’s also small enough that statisticians and health professionals have difficulty pinpointing patterns that would provide Trujillo-Daza’s shipmates reliable answers or contexts.
Yet even one death has a disproportionate enough impact on a unit—not to mention a challenge to the Coast Guard’s commitment to its people—that policymakers at Coast Guard Headquarters and civilian researchers continue to study how to improve suicide prevention programs, including for reservists.
"He knew that the resources were there," said Petty Officer 1st Class David Pierce, Trujillo-Daza’s friend and shipmate at PSU 313, referring to the Coast Guard-sponsored mental health programs. “He just felt that [suicide] was his only way out.
Beyond the chain of command or chaplains, the current Coast Guard Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is CG SUPRT. Advertised through flyers, general mandated training and on the service’s website it is available via a toll-free phone number 24 hours a day and seven days a week (including to reservists on or off-duty). CG SUPRT is designed “to assist Coast Guard employees with a wide range of mental health and other life concerns, such as depression, relationship issues and work stress,” according to the website.
When members call CG SUPRT, “they’ll have an opportunity to speak with a licensed clinician with experience in these topics and with [a military] population,” explained Adrienne Wright- Williams, the Coast Guard’s Employee Assistance Program Manager, Office of Work-Life Behavioral Health Services Division.
"An assessment is done on the phone, and then they’ll refer the caller to medical services if it’s an emergency,” said Wright-Williams, ”but if not, they’ll continue with appointments and follow-up services for the members: call-backs and check-ins—checking in on them, asking, ‘can I provide you with more information, how are you doing?’— but also an appointment if necessary.”
Yet in spite of the mandated suicide prevention training and the promotion of the CG SUPRT, Wright-Williams acknowledges there may be some people, like Trujillo-Daza who man not be reached by- or reach out to- those services.
“We don't want to think that, but sometimes there are condition beyond our control," she said. "But that shouldn't stop you from trying to make [zero suicides] happen."
The question then becomes what to do differently.
Researchers say that looking beyond stereotypes is an
important first step.
“There’s a natural instinct to think that a combat
deployment would be a consideration in suicides,” explained Dr. Jackie Maffucci, research director for the non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. However, “according to Army research, only a third of those who died by suicide had ever been in combat.”
Likewise, though anxieties about losing a security
clearance or being negatively perceived by shipmates and superiors may still deter some people from asking for help, education since 9/11 on the psychological and emotional
effects of military service have lessened the perceived stigma associated with mental issues. “There is still some stigma, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a factor as we used to think,” said Dr. Craig Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. “Our research suggests that the reason people do not get help is not because of stigma, but whether the treatment is convenient and will really help."
With respect to convenience and effectiveness, Bryan and Maffucci say that what may work for active duty personnel may not work for reservists like those in PSU 313 and other units.
When it comes to Reserve versus active duty, you should be approaching prevention programs in different ways,” explained Bryan. “’One size fits all’ means one size fits nobody. The information can be the same, but it needs to be tailored.
That’s because reservists experience stress in different ways. For example, instead of working every day with shipmates who may be trained to identify signs leading to suicide, reservists may demobilize from deployments or
return from drills to homes far from their duty station. Perhaps the only service member within their community, perhaps in rural areas with access to few counseling resources, perhaps dealing with the stress of balancing a civilian career with a part-time military one, reservists may face a gradual, potentially deadly, accumulation of anxiety
And that can be hard to detect on drill weekends.
" It's pretty easy to put on a happy face fro a two-day drill weekends and act like everything is fine," says Petty Officer 1st Class Collin Woods, another shipmate and friend of Trujillo-Daza.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Christopher Trujillo-Daza on deployment with PSU 313.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Christopher Trujillo-Daza relaxes on the deck of a 32-foot transportable port security boat.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Christopher Trujillo-Daza poses for a photo with his sister and mother.