‘He Came to Us’: USO Staffer in Germany Takes Action to Save the Life of Despondent Soldier

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How do you know if someone’s contemplating suicide?

For Shannon Huffman, it’s instinct. Huffman, a USO employee in Landstuhl, Germany, received extensive suicide prevention education during her 20 years in the Air Force. Late last year, that training may have saved someone’s life.

One evening, Huffman was at Landstuhl’s USO Warrior Center in Germany teaching a volunteer how to make chili. A service member approached her, looking distressed, and asked if she would help mail some belongings for him. Even though Huffman could sense something was wrong, it wasn’t until the he gave her his mother’s mailing address that she realized he was in a fragile, possibly suicidal, state and needed immediate help.

Huffman, an information specialist at the center, asked a volunteer to watch the service member while she alerted the hospital’s medical staff. Within minutes, Huffman subtly asked the service member to step outside the center and speak with medical personnel, who later escorted him to the hospital for treatment.

“She didn’t just help an individual – she helped all of his family and friends who may have had to suffer an irreplaceable loss,” said Laura Ponzo, the USO Warrior Center Manager and Huffman’s supervisor.

“The reason our center exists is to provide a home away from home for the wounded, ill and injured service members and give them someplace where they can feel comfortable and relax. That service member probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable going up to someone in uniform and asking for help, so he came to us.”

Because of her actions, Huffman was honored with the USO President’s Award, which recognizes USO employees for outstanding contributions to or on behalf of the organization.

“To be in a position where I get to help our veterans in need on a daily basis makes going to work a passion, not just a job,” Huffman said. “I was on the [receiving] end of the USO for 20 years and am honored to be able to return the kindness.”

Huffman says it’s the simple actions — like listening to someone vent or giving them a hug — that most benefit recovering troops who visit the USO Warrior Center.

“Often when a person comes in our center they are shook up and distraught,” she said. “Helping them make a cup of coffee and dial the phone back home to let family know they are OK is the most important thing in the world to them at that moment.

“It feels good to make that kind of difference for somebody, but that’s what we do right? Make every moment count.”

Congressmen Speak Out on Military Suicide Rate

Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) goes through the line at the Operation USO Care Package assembly event on Sept. 11 in Washington, D.C. USO photo by Mike Theiler

Seventy members of Congress turned out for an Operation USO Care Package (OUCP) assembly event on September 11 in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. But putting together the much-appreciated bags of goodness for troops downrange wasn’t the only thing on their minds.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, and with the staggering rise in military suicides in recent years—as of July the Army was on pace for a 200 suicides this year alone—there appears to be an even greater drive to address the issue than ever before. The USO spoke to a few Congressmen who attended the OUCP event about the rising rates of suicide in America’s military ranks. Here are their thoughts:

Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX), founding co-chair of the USO Congressional Caucus

“I am proud that Fort Bliss is leading the way through mental health screening and counseling in the Army. It’s something we want to keep supporting and pushing forward so that not a single military person feels the desperation to have to contemplate committing suicide. Only then can we as a nation say that we’ve done everything we can to support our men and women in uniform and their families, because the solution is going to be to involve the families so they can have that support system.”

Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), member of the USO Congressional Caucus

“The main thing is getting them together with their loved ones. A lot of the suicides are over personal relationships that may have deteriorated while [a service member] is overseas. … There’s a whole host of things. Some of it is a direct result of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I think we have a responsibility to deal with it. They suffer enough and risk enough when they’re in a combat position, that suffering and risk [should] not continue when they get home. They need to be embraced by their families, their loved ones, their communities and this country.”

If you are a service member or veteran dealing with tough times—or are concerned about a member of the military family in this type of situation—visit the Veterans Crisis Line at veterancrisisline.net or call 1-800-273-8255.

— Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development