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How I Found Hope After Attempting Suicide
CW4 Clifford Bauman, a Veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and today an aviation logistics officer for the National Guard Bureau, was one of the Guard Soldiers who gave his all responding to 9/11, searching through the rubble at the Pentagon after the crash of Flight 77, hoping to find life. That devotion nearly cost him his own, as the memories and guilt he experienced led him to attempt suicide 15 months later. But for any Soldier who believes that it’s pointless to go on, Bauman is living proof there is hope.
The latest stats say 20 Veterans a day take their life, and Bauman, like so many others across the Guard and DoD, is working to bring that number down.
September is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month in the Army, but Bauman, now 46, makes this a personal mission year-round. Here, Soldier to Soldier, he opens up about two defining moments of his life—and the day-to-day challenge of riding the ups and downs that service members face.
My path to suicide started on the night of Sept. 12, 2001. After searching for survivors in the Pentagon for over 18 hours, and finding none, I returned home to remove my soiled uniform and placed my hardhat, gloves and boots in a box. Tucking the box in the closet, as if the memories would remain trapped inside, I spoke about the events to no one. At that time, I had no idea I was on a path to self-destruction or how much my life would change over the coming year.
Days turned into nights, nights turned into weeks and then weeks into months, until a year had passed since 9/11. In retrospect, I was in denial. Like most who are dealing with any situation, denial is always there as hope fades away. On the 9/11 anniversary, as I aimlessly jumped through the headlines of The Washington Post, my eyes froze upon three words I couldn’t ignore: “One Year Later.”
My mind took me back to a place and time I never wanted to see again. The article contained a letter written by a son whose mother had died at the Pentagon. I had found her body when I was searching through the wreckage. At that moment, my life entered a downward spiral into hell. I started drinking more.
It was a slow process at first. One beer led to two, and then so on. I stayed awake as long as I could, often drinking until I passed out. Passing out was the only way I knew how to stop the dreams that vividly replayed over and over. A co-worker noticed a change in me and, after talking to me over several days, became concerned enough that he notified my leadership. I was angry at him and felt betrayed because my military career was going to be over. In retrospect, he saved my life.
For me, going to see a psychologist most certainly meant the end of my career and my security clearance. So my plan was to tell people what they wanted to hear so they could clear me. And then everyone (work and family) would be happy. They gave me medicine to help me sleep, along with anti-anxiety pills. Regrettably, I never talked about why I was feeling the way I was. I decided in December 2002 to go home for the holidays to get a break from it all. However, little did I know that the events to follow would change my life forever.
My family always knew something was wrong, and they tried to help. They attempted to reverse my depressed moods by urging me to visit or talk about “what was bothering me.” It was a constant barrage of questions, phone calls and attempts to make me happy. But all I wanted was to be left alone. They wouldn’t understand. They couldn’t help me. Or so I believed. All good intentions, but it just kept piling more and more stress on me. How could I tell them how to help me if I did not understand it myself?
It all came to a head while I was at my brother’s house the night of Dec. 22. After he left for work, I sat alone in the dark thinking about my life, and the guilt about 9/11 overcame me. Could I have done something different? I asked myself over and over, and the answer I gave myself was always the same. Then I thought about the stress I was causing my family and everyone around me.
It was at that point that everything became too much for me. I got up from the couch, grabbed a roll of paper towels, tore off a sheet and scribbled a simple note on it: “I love you all, but the pain of not finding anyone alive is more than I can bear anymore.” I then took 20 sleeping pills and lay down on the couch. The nightmares stopped.
I am often asked what I thought about at this moment. I took those pills, and for me for the first time in a long time, I was at peace. I would no longer have to deal with the memories, the stress of work and dealing with my family. The next thing I remembered were bright lights and my brother standing over me, talking to me.
My brother, a nurse, tried to call the house on his break, and when I did not answer, he rushed home and found me on the couch, unresponsive, and rushed me to the hospital. After my three-day stay in a state mental facility and talking with the counselors there, I knew I had to be honest with myself. When I came back home, I re-entered counseling.
Now I was forced to talk about my feelings of guilt. After a few months, the weight on my chest started to lift. In the years that followed, several huge turning points occurred. My first son was born. Later, I met my current wife and rock, Krystal. And in 2011, I attended the Comprehensive Soldier Family and Fitness (CSF2) Master Resilience Course at the University of Pennsylvania. At the end of the two weeks, I spoke publicly for the first time about my experience. The overwhelming response of support I received from the Soldiers convinced me that I should continue to share my story. That same year, I made a video for the Veterans Administration’s “Make the Connection” campaign on suicide awareness.
All of that helped me. But that doesn’t mean I’m over post-traumatic stress disorder forever, as I found out after an incident in 2009.
That year, on the morning of Oct. 3, my 5-year-old son and I set out with a good friend of mine to go fishing in my newly purchased boat, The Krystal Marie, in Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Fort Monroe, VA, where I lived. We witnessed a barge collide with a small boat. After bumping the monstrous barge several times, the smaller vessel capsized and sent its four men into the bay—with no life vests.
I steered my boat about 300 yards toward the dangerous water, where debris and gas from the collision littered the area and created a volatile environment. I realized that three of the men had clung to the side of the capsized boat and that one man was attempting to swim.
The man attempting to swim stopped moving and was lying face down in the water. I quickly stripped down and donned a life jacket, and after securing four more, I dove in to begin closing the 20 yards between the man and me. Upon reaching him, I tried desperately to resuscitate him in the choppy water for several minutes. Realizing that wasn’t working, I swam the man to the fishing boat that had arrived on scene. The people aboard pulled him from the water and continued to attempt CPR as they raced to shore. There, they were met by local first responders, who were unable to revive the man.
After getting the first man out of the water, I set my sights on getting the other three to safety as quickly as possible. My son (above left) was getting upset at this point, yelling for daddy to get back into the boat. I was trying to keep him calm as well as the victims. I swam over to the other guys who were capsized, pulled myself onto their boat and got them vested. All of them were in their 60s and 70s, and over 220 pounds. I mean they were big guys.
I chose the biggest one, who was almost 300 pounds, to put on the boat first. He was panicking, and I told him, “If you don’t calm down, I won’t be able to get you on the boat.” Once he quieted down and I had all three men secured in their life vests, my buddy backed my boat against the capsized vessel, and we began helping the men out of the water and into the safe haven of my boat, which was no easy feat.
From between the two boats, I pushed the men up, one by one, as my buddy pulled them into the boat. It took seven to 10 tries to get each person on board because we were all getting pretty tired. After everyone was safely in, I gave the survivors quick medical assessments while attempting to calm my son, who had been worrying for his father’s safety for over 40 minutes. My buddy then quickly piloted the boat to a harbor, where the men were offloaded into the care of emergency personnel.
I tell this story because shortly after the event, I started feeling guilty about not being able to save the one person, instead of focusing on the fact that three others went home alive that day. [Editor’s note: CW4 Bauman received the Soldier’s Medal for his heroic actions.]
PTSD never goes away. But one can learn to deal with the triggers that often come up from time to time. My wife attends counseling to understand the phenomenon of PTSD and to gain more tools to continue to be supportive of me. I strongly believe that what I learned from CSF2 helped me become a better husband, father and Soldier.
A couple of the techniques that work the best for me is that at the end of each day, I try to “hunt for the good stuff”—thinking of three positive things that happened to me that day. Let’s face it: No matter how bad your day went, something good happened at some point. The other practice I use is avoiding “catastrophizing,” or dwelling on the worst-case scenario in any given situation. This was the hardest technique to learn and something I struggled with, but once I learned how to apply it, that really made a change in my life.
Going to counseling on a regular basis also really helps me. I do a lot of public speaking about the experiences I wrote about in this article, and at times it does bother me. Like an old car, I need a tuneup every once in a while. We all do.
Dealing with deep personal feelings or demons is tough, but applying the techniques in CSF2 and seeing a counselor can help you overcome any molehill that seems like a mountain at the time.
I am a firm believer that going to counseling does not make you weak. It makes you stronger. However, counseling will work only if you are willing to be honest with both the counselor and yourself. Counseling isn’t easy, but I believe I am worth it. If any Soldier or family member is reading this article, and you are not in a good place, please get help. Even if you don’t think you are important, you are to someone.
Trust me. I’ve been there.
SEE MORE OF CW4 BAUMAN'S STORY
Go to Conversation.ActionAllianceforSuicidePrevention.org/veterans to see a video in which he shares more of his experience.
GETTING IMMEDIATE HELP
If you or someone you know needs urgent assistance, call the military crisis line at 800-273-8255 and press 1. You can also chat online with professionals at VeteransCrisisLine.net/chattermsofservice/aspx or text 838255.
To find out more about suicide intervention and the program ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), go to LivingWorks.net or see your unit Suicide Intervention Officer. For info on the CSF2 course, see your chain of command.
The Guard’s Family Assistance Centers offer referral-based services on crisis intervention, TRICARE benefits and more. To find a contact, go to JointServicesSupport.org/fp
The Guard Your Health website provides lots of information on general health and medical readiness. Go to GuardYourHealth.com