MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
JAMIE TARABAY: For a soldier in the U.S. Army, transition can mean a number of things - deploying to a combat zone, coming home, leaving a unit, leaving the Army. But one of the biggest transitions in any soldier's life is that first moment when the bus rolls into the processing center, like here at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. It's past 10 o'clock at night, and it's day one.
As NPR's Jamie Tarabay explains, it's all about transitions.
JAMIE TARABAY: For a soldier in the U.S. Army, transition can mean a number of things - deploying to a combat zone, coming home, leaving a unit, leaving the Army. But one of the biggest transitions in any soldier's life is that first moment when the bus rolls into the processing center, like here at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. It's past 10:00 at night and it's day one.
(Soundbite of bus)
Sergeant NICHOLAS PIERONI (U.S. Army): Hey, soldiers, my name is Drill Sergeant Pieroni. You're going to address me as drill sergeant. You're going to answer yes or no, drill sergeant, is that clear?
Unidentified People: Yes, drill sergeant.
Sgt. PIERONI: Is that clear?
Unidentified People: Yes, drill sergeant.
Sgt. PIERONI: All right, outstanding.
TARABAY: Drill Sergeant Nicholas Pieroni walks the aisle of the bus, shouting instructions at the group. He tells the men and women how they are to file out of the bus and line up. He tells them how to stand.
Sgt. PIERONI: Do not move your head. Do not move your eyes. Your head and eyes should be locked forward.
TARABAY: Ordered to tuck their shirts in, jelly bellies and muffin tops become clear. The Army's basic training has changed for the first time in 30 years, to accommodate a generation that's less fit, spends more time indoors and in front of computers. They shuffled into the processing center. It's like a classroom full of desks. The soldiers line up at each table. There's an orientation package for each of them, an Army manual. There's hand sanitizer.
Staff Sergeant Timothy Bruce goes through everything with them. He points to the hand sanitizer. Pick up the bottle, he says.
Sergeant TIMOTHY BRUCE (U.S. Army): Put that off to the right- hand side.
Pull out that orange-and-black ACE Army strong card. There's your suicide-prevention card. On the back of that card, it has some helpful hints and tips on how to prevent suicide. Put that card off to the right-hand side.
TARABAY: It's a jarring moment for the new recruits to get this right after getting off the bus. Some take a minute before putting it away. The general mood, though, is of excitement. When I asked some of the new recruits why they joined the Army, some said they needed the discipline; some said to pay for college; others, out of patriotism or family tradition.
Several weeks into their 10-week training, the new recruits fill out a questionnaire of 100 questions, called the Global Assessment Tool, or the GAT.
Unidentified Man #1: To be clear, the GAT is not a test. There are no right or wrong answers.
TARABAY: The GAT is one of the main tools the Army uses to track behavioral health. The questions relate to how soldiers handle stress. For example, when something bad happens, I expect more bad things to happen, or I blame myself. Or, how often do you feel left out; how often do you feel part of a group?
Even at this early stage, the training can be too much for some. A new recruit killed himself in his barracks at Fort Jackson in February this year.
(Soundbite of yelling)
Unidentified Man #2: Forty-five seconds.
(Soundbite of yelling)
TARABAY: Recruit James Watson, from Clinton Township in Michigan, is five weeks into the training. As he watches a training exercise, he says he has little sympathy for those who don't make it.
Mr. JAMES WATSON: I don't believe in suicide. I think that's the easy way out. You know what you're getting into if you sign this contract. It's not gonna be like you're going camping. You're gonna get worked. So if you can't handle that kind of thing, you should never come to a military branch.
Unidentified Man #3: Soldiers, you still need to be firing. Get out here and access fire at that.
TARABAY: Much of the 10 weeks at Fort Jackson is taken up in training for war. These recruits are in the final stage of exercises; they're in full combat gear. Their unit has come to a mock Iraqi town to meet the mayor. It's a hostile area, and they come under simulated fire.
Unidentified Man #4: Start getting them passed up. Start talking me through how that you would freaking pass this soldier. Let's go.
TARABAY: When the exercise is over, the recruits stand in the shade and drink water.
Ryan Cooper, a 19-year-old from Buffalo, New York, says he doesn't recognize the person he was when he arrived here nearly 10 weeks ago.
Mr. RYAN COOPER: I didn't even eat for like, the first two weeks I was here because I was homesick.
TARABAY: But going to war is what the soldiers are repeatedly told will happen. It's probably the biggest transition they'll ever deal with. Most make it. Some, like Private 1st Class Brian Williams, don't.
Ms. CONNIE SCOTT: My name is Connie Scott. I'm the mother of Private 1st Class Brian Williams.
TARABAY: I met Connie Scott at a conference for the families of military suicide victims. Her son's case is a classic example of what the Army means when it talks about suicides in transition. Brian Williams joined at 19, five years ago. At the time, Connie Scott was on her honeymoon with her second husband when her son called and left her a voice-mail message.
Ms. SCOTT: By the time we got back to town, he had enlisted. So about 10 days after Patrick and I were married, he left for basic training.
TARABAY: He went straight from basic to advanced individual training, then on to Fort Carson, Colorado. Not long after that, he was deployed to Iraq. He was stationed in Ramadi, in the western province of Anbar, in 2006, at the height of the Sunni insurgency. His job was to maintain electronic gear, but his mother says he routinely went out on patrol with his unit.
Ms. SCOTT: He was led to believe that he would be keeping the equipment in working order. But he was also part of doing the night patrols, where they would go into Ramadi and kick in doors, looking for insurgents.
TARABAY: After a couple of months in Iraq, he was ordered to take home leave. According to his mother, that's when the problems started. His unit had just lost men, and as he waited for the flight home, his fiancee called to say she was in love with someone else. It took him five days to make it home to Minnesota. It was Christmas. He was without his fiancee at his mother's new house with her new husband.
Ms. SCOTT: I knew he was in terrible pain. I knew he was at risk for suicide, but I absolutely did not know what to do. I didn't know whether to talk to him or not talk to him. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know whether to ask him, or pretend everything was normal.
TARABAY: Connie Scott says Brian shared some of what he saw in Iraq with his brother and sister, but he didnt tell her anything. Towards the end of his two-weeks' leave, he met up with his former fiancee so they could return each other's things. The day before he was to fly back to Iraq, he seemed calm and upbeat.
Ms. SCOTT: He was looking forward to getting back to Iraq. He missed his buddies. He wanted to learn to play the guitar when he got over there. So he had this sense of lightness and peacefulness. And I thought, oh, thank God, he's okay. I can go to bed at night and sleep. And I woke up the next morning to him having taken his life.
TARABAY: Brian Williams had been in the Army for less than three years. His mother believes that if hed stayed in Iraq, her son would have survived. His battle buddies would have been able to help him deal with the deaths in his unit, and the loss of his fiancee.
It's points of transition like this that the Army is trying to understand so it can address the causes of suicide. There are over a million soldiers coming in and out of the U.S. Army, in and out of war - all in transition. In its latest monthly report on suicides, the U.S. Army said 18 soldier deaths were under investigation. That number is up from 13 the month before.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.
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