Photo by Spc. Rene Escamilla
Maj. Gen. Tony Aguto, 3rd Infantry Division commanding general, left, greets Second Lady Karen Pence during her visit to Hunter Army Airfield, Sept. 9, to discuss mental health, suicide awareness and the DoD programs available to military personnel and their dependents.
Second Lady Karen Pence traveled to Hunter Army Airfield Sept. 9 to visit Soldiers and Family members of the Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield communities to discuss mental health, suicide awareness and the Department of Defense programs available to military personnel and their dependents.
Pence is the lead ambassador for PREVENTS: The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide. Pence was joined by DoD Deputy Secretary David Norquist; acting DoD Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Pamela Powers; Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director for the Office of Force Resiliency for the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel Readiness; Leah Esper, spouse of Secretary Mark Esper; and Stephanie Norquist, spouse of Deputy Secretary Norquist.
Maj. Gen Tony Aguto, 3rd Infantry Division commanding general, and Command Sgt. Maj. James McGuffey, the division’s senior enlisted advisor, and other senior military officials welcomed the Second Lady and her distinguished party at the airfield, then held a roundtable discussion on mental health support at the Hunter Club.
Several prominent mental health professionals from the local community discussed how the military is improving mental health access for Soldiers.
“We’ve looked at access to care and innovative ways that we can reach across and outside of the clinic; to visit the motor pools and be a part of the critical things that are happening outside,” said Dr. Peter Dell, director of psychological health for Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield, who manages and leads more than 150 clinical and support staff available to assist Soldiers, veterans and their Families.
Dr. Jennifer Brown-Morgan, a teammate of Dell, spoke about helping members of the military community feel comfortable seeking help.
“What we've really found is that decreasing the stigma is absolutely a top down process,” Brown-Morgan said. “Really, it’s a combination of engaged leadership, and with our embedded behavioral health team, we actually can create, not only self-awareness, but we also create actionable plans to help individuals and leaders perform optimally in both professional and personal domains. So, we see a healthier Family; we see a healthier Soldier, with a healthier unit and we have had incredible results.”
Pence also heard the personal testimonies of Soldiers in attendance. One story came from Command Sgt. Maj. James McGuffey, the division’s senior enlisted advisor.
“When the planes hit the Twin Towers, everything changed,” McGuffey said. “I deployed several times and experienced many tragedies; things that most people shouldn't be a part of or have to witness.
“I went through a divorce; I lost battle buddies; I lost friends; I lost family and I got to the point where I didn't think I could do anything right. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and felt like there was no one I could talk to.”
An argument at his work led to a referral to behavioral health services, and McGuffey said that is when the healing began.
His military colleagues encouraged him and asked him how his sessions were going. He continued to seek help and soon other Service members began seeking treatment themselves.
“Not only have I been able to get through some of those dark times and the destructive behaviors, I also became successful,” McGuffey said. “I don't consider myself successful because I got promoted. I consider myself successful because I've learned to talk about things that are hard to talk about and learned how to deal with a lot of injuries that I carry around inside.”
The visiting party viewed displays of rotary-wing aircraft and ground combat vehicles from several Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield units. Pence spoke to a crowd in attendance.
“As we recognize September as National Suicide Prevention Month, I applaud what you are doing here at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield to address mental health,” Pence said.
The Second Lady explained to those in attendance that the country is facing an epidemic.
“I like to say wherever I go, ‘It's okay to say that you're not okay,’” she said. “It's time to erase the stigma that is associated with mental health because we are facing an epidemic of suicide right now.”
Pence noted people must learn how to better recognize risk factors in others, as well as within themselves. Moreover, people need to recognize protective factors, such as: a sense of purpose, healthy Family relationships, friends, and faith-based communities to support, particularly in a time of need.
“For me, art is important to my mental health,” Pence said. “So, find what works for you. Maybe it's exercise, or gardening, or prayer, or cooking, reading, or any other activity that engages you and your Family. We're asking people to schedule this into your day, so that if you like to read, give yourself that permission to say okay, an hour a day. I'm actually going to be able to find a place and I'm going to read, or I'm going to cook my favorite meal.”
Pence concluded by encouraging those who may be concerned about themselves, or a loved one, to call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255. Press 1 if you’re a military Service member or a veteran. September is National Suicide Prevention Month.