Face of Defense: Officer Beats Suicide, Helps Others
By Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown
Army News Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 12, 2010 Walking her cousin's dog past a cemetery on a winter day in 2009, Army Capt. Emily Stehr realized she envied the bodies buried there -- they had peace.
Army Capt. Emily Stehr battled with suicide upon returning from her deployment to Iraq in 2008. She now uses her experience to help others. Courtesy photo
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That was the day she recognized she was suicidal.
"I started to fixate on death, especially my own death. … I would think of different ways to kill myself," Stehr confessed.
Enveloped in what she calls a "shroud of suicide," Stehr battled with a feeling of hopelessness upon returning from a 15-month deployment to Iraq. Stehr had struggled with depression prior to her deployment, she said, but this was different.
A physical therapist, Stehr helped to nurse injured soldiers of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment back to health so they could return to the fight -- a job that she said caused her anger and grief when many of her former patients went on to be killed in combat.
Stehr experienced accumulative trauma and compassion fatigue; she was jittery around crowds, having trouble sleeping, and her anxiety level increased. She kept waiting for her life to go back to "normal" after her deployment, but it didn't.
What eventually pushed Stehr to her limit was reading an e-mail from a deployed co-worker who had witnessed the death of a combat medic -- the soldier had bled to death from shrapnel cutting a major artery in her neck.
"For me, that was the straw that broke the camel's back. … I thought, 'I'm done. Done with pain, done with life,'" Stehr said.
That day, she added, she knew she was going to end up either in the hospital or dead. She chose the hospital.
Stehr admitted herself to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Going in, she said, she was consumed with taking her life. But when she walked out, she was determined to live.
"It was quite a transformation to happen in one week. … I learned that I was sick, but not crazy or defective," she said. "Thankfully, I learned that there is something you can do if you are suicidal." Stehr began cognitive behavioral therapy, joined a depression-management group and is learning how to analyze and steer her thoughts.
"I didn't really realize how angry I was," Stehr admitted. "I'm at such a healthier place now where I know how to cope."
Stehr said part of the reason it was hard for her to ask for help is she knew the stigma associated with suicide would follow her. "No one would say the "s" word," she said. "The stigma tells us that people with mental health problems are crazy or weak or defective. … I've actually been told that I am a less-quality person because I've had struggles with suicide."
But Stehr wants soldiers to know that emotional injuries are just as legitimate as physical ones -- they are just invisible. She also said there are repercussions when a healthy person voluntarily elects to die.
"It's like a candle going out and there's less light in the world. … [It’s] a representation of hope extinguished," she said.
At her lowest point, Stehr said, she believed no one would miss her if she was gone, but she added that she now knows her suicide would have hurt many people -- especially her husband, who has been supportive throughout her struggle.
"Don't believe the lies. … Don't believe your thoughts and feelings. You don't have to kill yourself to escape your pain,” she said. “There is a way out."
Stehr's advice to friends and family members of a person who is battling suicide is to treat it as a medical emergency and to get their loved one to a mental-health professional or a hospital as soon as possible.
Stehr has now made it her mission to tell her story in hopes that it will reach and stop those contemplating suicide.
"I'll always tell my story if it will help someone not kill themselves," she said.
And while she still struggles with depression, especially on death anniversaries of friends she has lost, Stehr said, suicide is no longer an option.
Her story already has helped others. She recently received word that a social worker's patient accepted treatment after watching a video featuring Stehr.
"That makes everything worth it," Stehr said of what she's been through. "That's my vindication."