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Army Sgt. Maj. implores others to seek help for suicide ideation

McGrath in uniform with his family Army Sgt. Maj. Patrick McGrath, 108th Defense Artillery Brigade, shares his story of seeking help after contemplating suicide in 2019. (Courtesy Photo)

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“I prayed to God to just take me. For one, I was a coward, I didn’t want to do it, and I would prefer He do it on his terms,” recalled Army Sgt. Maj. Patrick McGrath, 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, of contemplating suicide in 2019.

McGrath’s story goes back to his childhood. He detailed how this was a relevant point because the soldiers he serves with in the Army come from all walks of life.

“I didn’t have the best childhood,” said McGrath, who was born at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in eastern North Carolina, but grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. “My father was in the Marines for seven years, but not during a time I can remember. My mother was a drug addict and alcoholic.”

McGrath said it was after high school that he discovered the taste of alcohol.

He said he attempted to go to college, but it didn’t pan out. He ended up becoming a pizza chain manager, but didn’t feel a sense of purpose.

“I went home and told my dad I was going to look at all the services,” he said.

After joining the Army, McGrath said he still had a “backpack full of stuff” stemming from his childhood, such as low self-esteem and no sense of value, but he felt he had a purpose.

“The Army gave me a little tag that told me this is how you wear your uniform, this is how you’re supposed to act and follow the five Rs (right place, right time, right attitude, right uniform and right appearance),” he said. “This will ensure you’re successful.”

McGrath said he was on the pathway to success, but there came a moment when he drank until he blacked out. He said it was the first time in his life he thought he was like his mom, a road he didn’t want to travel.

McGrath said he was ‘boozing it up’ only on the weekends. He hid his drinking habit, and no one suspected he had a problem. He had soldiers who relied on him. He stayed focused all the while struggling with his own challenges, but his soldier gave him a sense of purpose.

“When I came down on orders and went to Korea, everything was still good,” McGrath said. “I was a first sergeant. I still had that sense of purpose, but I started drinking more. Weekends morphed into weekdays. My performance declined, but I was really good at what I did, so it appeared to those around me, I was doing what I needed to do. I had manipulated my leadership because I was getting results.”

In November 2017, the sergeants major’s list came out. His name was on the list and in August 2018 he’d be heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, to attend the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.

“I’m in trouble,” he remembered thinking to himself. “I knew I was going to have to leave my family, and I had no self-discipline. For 17 years, I had manipulated the Army.”

On July 13, 2018, he left Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, for Texas, and regressed back to drinking. “I showed up to the academy, was assigned a squad leader for accountability and stayed in a hotel for about 20 days before the class started Aug. 8,” McGrath said. “Following the accountability check, I would go back to my room and be drunk by 1300 (1 p.m.). I was in my room crying because I already knew I had gone too far.”

McGrath said when school started, he became a bit more disciplined because there was a requirement from the Army. However, in order to thrive and succeed in the academy, he had to be self-disciplined, an area he failed at.

“I would wake up each day and tell myself I wasn’t going to drink,” he said. “I had the shakes, but no one knew I was going through this; it was a secret. I had three roommates, too, and they had no idea.”

McGrath explained how one day he was driving to the Academy and started to plan how he was going to kill himself. “There’s these crazy overpasses in El Paso and people jump off there all the time,” he said. “That was my plan, too.”

But Feb. 5, 2019, he bolstered the courage to ask for help.

“I went into the instructors’ office at the academy and said ‘If I don’t get help, I’m going to kill myself,’ ” McGrath proclaimed. “I ended up going to resident treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas (now Joint Base San Antonio). I went back to the academy on April 9, 2019, was dropped for medical reasons, and came back to Fort Bragg.”

The support he received was opposite from what he thought it would be.

“I couldn’t comprehend the academy instructors being so supportive,” McGrath said. “I thought they would say I was letting the NCO Corps down and the academy down. Their reaction gave me hope that I could still one day wear the rank of sergeant major. The experience also impacted my spiritual relationship with God. God was using them to tell me it was going to be OK!”

Elizabeth Bechtel, Fort Bragg’s Suicide Prevention Program manager, said it is important to educate the community on Suicide Prevention/Intervention for a couple of reasons.

“The one thing we hear time and time again from those who survived an attempted suicide is they just wanted someone to listen to them,” she said. “So, teaching active listening skills and how to care when someone is in crisis is very important."

McGrath echoed that sentiment. He added how his family, the academy instructors, the treatment in San Antonio, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and having the opportunity to help others who are struggling has renewed his purpose.

He said there are a lot of people like him and he wants them to know their darkness can turn into light.

“I finished the non-resident portion of the academy on April 3, 2020 and was promoted to sergeant major August 1, 2020,” McGrath said. “I’ve been sober for 569 days.”

All service members, veterans, and their families are encouraged to contact the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1 to speak with a trained counselor. The support is free, confidential and available every day 24/7. If you or a loved one is seeking information about psychological health concerns, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center at 866-966-1020 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants 24/7. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 provides help.

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