WAXAHACHIE - Military personnel's fight rages well beyond the battlefield, and chaplains are on the frontlines.
In 2012, military suicides hit a record high since the armed forces began tracking such tragedies. Self-inflicted military deaths outnumbered deaths that took place in combat. The rate is down slightly in 2013 - 161 potential suicides happened this year - but a military suicide takes places about every 18 hours.
Many times, chaplains are the first wave of defense against suicide, said U.S. Navy Chap. Fred McGuffin, who is assigned to the Marine Corps in New Orleans. Junior chaplains "deal with it often."
Military personnel turn to chaplains because they know them, McGuffin said. Chaplains spend time with the groups they're assigned to serve, get to know them and build trust. When something troubling takes place in a soldier's life, he or she understands they can confidentially go to a chaplain. If a person reports suicidal thoughts to other personnel, that will be noted on their record.
"We are already known as the helping agent in the unit," McGuffin said.
Texas Baptists have stepped up their efforts to combat the suicide epidemic by offering Applied Suicide Intervention Skill Training - ASSIST - training to all of its nearly 800 endorsed chaplains, including about 200 that serve in the military. The program provides tools for chaplains to discern root issues in people's lives that may lead to suicidal thoughts and works toward a resolution.
"Many times chaplains are the first responders, and this equips them to know how to figure out if suicide is the real issue and how to help," McGuffin said before co-teaching the training during Texas Baptists' chaplaincy retreat Sept. 18-20.
Ministering in a suicidal situation requires bravery, said Bobby Smith, director of Texas Baptists' Chaplaincy Relations who has been teaching ASSIST for 10 years. Asking someone if they're considering harming themselves and responding appropriately is difficult for any minister.
"Suicide is an issue all chaplains have to face and deal with at some point in their ministries," Smith said. "Most pastors will have to deal with it. That is a reality. There is very little training to help people understand how to minister in that situation. ASSIST enables them to have the courage and a format to address suicide when they recognize it in someone else's life."
An increase in military suicides reflects a surge in suicides throughout the country, Smith noted. More people now die of suicide than car accidents annually. Suicide among those who are middle aged rose nearly 30 percent from 1999 to 2010.
"It's becoming an acute need everywhere," he said. "I have more and more people talking to me about this situation. We're living in a society that's taking away hope. When people lose hope, that's when they consider suicide. They see no hope for a better tomorrow."
Chap. Scott Speight of the Army Reserves, who co-taught the ASSIST class with McGuffin, seeks to be part of the solution in the military. Each time he teaches the program, someone deals with suicide within a few weeks. The last time Speight taught ASSIST, a chaplain called him 24 hours later to share how it help him minister to someone.
"I hear the numbers," Speight said. "I see the need of how many soldiers, how many navy men, how many marines are committing suicide each day."
Texas Baptists' chaplaincy program and access to the ASSIST training program is made possible by gifts to missions through the Texas Baptist Cooperative Program. Smith and other chaplaincy leaders are willing to train pastors and church leaders in ASSIST as well.
"Texas Baptist chaplains are servants of churches and associations of Texas," he said. "We want to help meet their training needs."
For more information about Texas Baptists chaplaincy or the ASSIST training, call 888-244-9400.