Coast Guard program: “My dad’s suicide saved my life.”

  • Wednesday, December 11, 2013

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Brown is a suicide survivor whose story serves as a centerpiece to a new Suicide Prevention Program in the 8th Coast Guard District.


“My dad’s suicide saved my life.”

Posted by PA2 Stephen Lehmann, Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Coast Guard Heartland is the official blog of the 8th Coast Guard District. Its headquarters is in New Orleans, La.

“My name is Kevin Brown. I’m an ME1. I’ve been in the Coast Guard just under 19 years. I’m a suicide survivor and I’d like to tell my story.”

With his short, tight haircut, his physically trim appearance and government-issued eyeglasses, Brown is every inch a military man. Even his personality is an equal mix of stoicism and dry wit: perfect for the uniformed services. And like many of his fellow service members with nearly two decades of military service, Brown has seen his share of action.

But that isn’t why he’s here today. Today, he’s making a sacrifice of his time to save lives in a different way. He has a story to tell that will be recorded and will serve as part of a new suicide prevention training program. The reason for this is because of events that began to unfold when Brown and his family flew home for Thanksgiving.

“My youngest son, it was the first time he’d met [my father], he was 3 years old,” recalls Brown. “When we were at the airport, my dad hugged me. He hugged me in a way that was different. And I knew something was up.”

“It was like a two minute long hug. It was so tight I could barely breathe. Just the way he did it, the way he said goodbye … You don’t know what it is, but you just know something’s not right. And I’ll never forget that.”

“I told my wife at the time, I said, ‘This is going to be the last time I’m going to see my dad.’”

Three weeks later, after a fight with his wife, Jack Brown went missing. So did his pistol. Three days later, the local police found him.

“My knees buckled and I just remembered that I needed to get to my son. And I ran to my son and I said, ‘They found grandpa.’ And his eyes lit up and he said, ‘Is he okay?’ And I said, ‘No. He’s dead.’ And it just took the life out of his face.

“People say they have regrets, but if there’s one thing I could have changed … I would not have done that. Just the look on his face, seeing the life come out of him when I told him …”

As he recounts the details of this piece of dark history, it’s clear this isn’t his first time sharing this information. Parts sound rehearsed, but nothing feels disingenuous. Despite the time that has passed since his father’s death and the amount he’s gone over the material in his head, the emotions and reaction give an immeasurable depth and sincerity to his words.

It’s clear at this point in the story that Brown isn’t a self-diagnosed depressive, he doesn’t have the blues and isn’t down in the dumps. His father died and in a manner that left more questions than answers. For anyone, that would have been enough. The story could end there and we’d all understand why he felt the need to share. Unfortunately, the story has only been half told.

“A couple years later, my wife at the time and I were having some rocky times and things weren’t progressing as fast as she wanted as far as a separation and whatnot and she put a restraining order on me,” said Brown.

While he was on duty, a couple deputies stopped by the station to break the news.

“I didn’t know where to go, what I was going to do. I’d lost my kids. I knew my wife was going, but … she took my kids.”

“Went home. Was able to go back to the house. And there was a case of beer. Around 6:30, 7:00 that night I started drinking. And I drank maybe 12, 14 cans of beer in about a two, two and a half hour period,” said Brown. “In my living room there’s a gun safe. Full of guns and ammo. I got up and walked to that gun safe five or six times, thinking I was done, there’s nothing I needed do. But every time I got up there I’d stop. When I woke up the next morning I realized that the reason I stopped was because I wouldn’t put my kids through what my dad put me through. My dad’s suicide saved my life.”

“It’s not worth it. The pain and suffering people get put through when someone takes their own life. It just isn’t worth it.”

At this point, it’s hard to imagine a couple things. First, how Brown has shouldered this turmoil for so long and second, the bravery it took to share his personal struggles with what will eventually be a wide audience. Whatever apprehension he may have about putting his pain on display vanishes as he speaks directly to his prospective audience.

“I learned a long time ago it’s better to get the help when you need it,” said Brown. “Making that call yourself is a very difficult thing to do. You’re letting someone else take control of what you’re feeling. It’s a pride thing, but looking back I would have definitely done it in a heartbeat. Once you do it, it’s easy from there on.”

“We don’t want to believe someone would [commit suicide], so in our own mind we say, ‘That’s not possible.’ Well, it is possible and it does happens,” said Cmdr. Michael Hall, chaplain for the 8th Coast Guard District.

Hall is referring to the nine deaths and 61 hospitalizations of Coast Guard personnel related to suicide attempts this year. These figures have risen aggressively since 2010 where only 12 suicide-related hospitalizations were recorded. According to the chaplain, the very nature that makes Coast Guard members good at their job also makes them less likely to seek help in times of internal strife.

“There is an attitude among lifesavers that you’re suppose to handle everything on your own,” said Hall. “There’s a separation, a wall that gets put up that separates you from the feelings of it so that you’re able to perform your job. I think those things can get in the way when someone needs to seek help.”

“One of the biggest fears Coast Guard members have is the idea that if they seek help their career will be over. The reality is that is not true,” said Hall. “There are two types of people who have problems with suicide and one is mentally ill people. All the cases I’ve worked with are people who have a one-time episode. They get through it. They get the help they need, they go back to work and they’re just fine.”

The help Hall mentions is the Coast Guard’s work life program, the Employee Assistance Program or EAP. A 24/7 hotline provides members in need with confidential assistance ranging from work-related stress to depression and other life concerns. As Brown can attest to, when you have those darker-than-normal thoughts and you start to feel yourself starting to slip, you can’t get help if you don’t call.

“Call anybody,” said Brown. “Call family. Call 911. Tell anybody. It’s not a place you want to be. It’s not something you want to do.”

The U.S. 8th Coast Guard District is headquartered in New Orleans.

Editor’s Note: While this story is about a suicide prevention program for the U.S. Coast Guard, the characters could be anyone. We encourage people to heed Brown’s advice. To speak with someone about thoughts of suicide, call a family member or friend, emergency dispatch at 911, or your family doctor.

If you are in crisis call 911.

For help during business hours, you can reach the Georgetown County Mental Health Clinic at (843) 546-6107. The Center is located at 525 Lafayette Circle, Georgetown, SC 29440. Or call the Department of Mental Health Statewide toll-free number 1-800-763-1024 to be directed to a Mental Health Clinic near you. For more information please visit the South Carolina Department of Mental Health website at www.scdmh.org.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) will connect you to a skilled, trained counselor, anytime 24/7.

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