“TROOP IN TROUBLE” was the beginning of the status update posted last week by the military Facebook page Awesome Shit My Drill Sergeant Said. The humor-based page that originally started as a place for Drill Sergeants and soldiers to share stories had just become the last lifeline of a suicidal soldier.
Just before going to sleep around 11:30pm, Dan, a Staff Sergeant in the Army National Guard who is one of the page administrators and goes by the pseudonym “HMFIC”, decided he’d check the page activity one last time. There was a message in his inbox.
“I don’t know where else to turn,” the message read. “I’m 100% certain that my friend is planning on killing himself tonight and I cannot get a hold of him or anyone that can get to him. Can you help me?”
Dan sprung out of bed and into action, messaging the soldier and probing further. He provided screenshots of his friend’s recent Facebook posts and texts. The troubled soldier had lost his job, his girlfriend, and had financial troubles. It was serious.
For Dan, it wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with soldiers and suicide.
“A good friend of mine and my former squad leader was close,” Dan told me. “He was talked down after sending a last minute text of goodbye to his girlfriend.”
With only the knowledge of the soldier’s name, approximate location, and phone number -- which he would not respond to -- Dan wrote a frantic plea to his fans:
“TROOP IN TROUBLE; We just received a request for help from a troop that turned to us in desperation because it is the middle of the night and no one in the chain of command is picking up the phone and he sincerely believes his battle [buddy] is planning to take his own life tonight.”
The update, which had the soldier’s approximate location in Kingsport, TN -- was shared over 200 times across the social network. And then, the comments of support and offers of help came in.
“Sent to a friend in Kingsport,” said one fan at 2:44am. “Damn wish I was there,” commented another.
Prayers were offered, along with others who said they were willing to talk to him on the phone if necessary. Some who were nearby got in their cars and headed to the area to await further information.
“We had people, some from 100 miles away jump in their cars and head to Kingsport without even knowing who the guy was,” Dan recounted. “They wanted to ensure they were in the area in the case we got a location.”
Emails began to pour into Dan’s inbox. “I had a flood of emails from a slice of America.” he said. “I had hackers, phone company reps, a retired hostage negotiator, psychologists, behavioral health specialists. Anybody and everybody emailing, saying here’s what I do, let me know if I can do anything.”
“Got a phone number,” Dan posted to his fans, “but straight to voicemail with no voicemail box set up yet.” Along with others who had the soldier’s number, Dan began sending text messages to him, but he wouldn’t respond.
Many fans of the page stayed awake to continue following the saga and offer assistance. For Dan, who could see the larger picture, desperation started to creep in at 3:07am:
“10 minutes max and I’m calling civilian EMS dispatch,” he wrote in another comment. “F-- this. Lost too many goddamned people to the enemy to lose a single f--king one to the enemy within.”
“After not hearing back from him, I called Kingsport emergency dispatch,” said Dan. Speaking with emergency operators, he explained the situation. Law enforcement officers looked up his last known address -- his grandmother’s home -- and tried to check on him. He wasn’t there.
As police officers rushed to find the soldier, Dan started receiving texts from the man he was trying to save.
“I appreciate what you and everybody with your page are trying to do, but I’ve made my decision.”
With a mixture of Dan’s own technical knowledge, help from fans, and with the soldier’s phone signal broadcasting, Dan was able to track a latitude and longitude for the soldier.
“His texts were getting progressively worse and then he stopped responding,” Dan said. He looked up information on the soldier’s unit online and found the phone number for his Executive Officer (XO). It was almost 4am.
Waking up the officer, Dan explained what had transpired. “Sir, I know this is going to sound a little weird,” he told him, “but I’m from the internet and I’m here to help.” More soldiers were woken up -- including the commander and other leaders.
Using Dan’s approximate GPS whereabouts with knowledge gleaned from fellow soldiers, he was located, alone, drinking in a small apartment. His fellow soldiers spoke to him through the door, saying “Let’s talk about what’s going on and figure out what we can do to get you on the right track.”
At roughly 5am, after over 1400 comments on the original post, hundreds of calls and texts, the XO commented to the page, “We picked him up. The soldier is safe.”
Dan still can’t believe the level of support that came, all to help a single soldier.
“The response was humbling to say the least, and at the time moved me to tears,” Dan told me. “I still get choked up when I think about it.”
With the news that the soldier was out of harm’s way, Dan caught a few hours of sleep. When he woke up, he had an email from the soldier’s commanding officer, who was amazed at the response from his page and his fans. He closed by telling Dan, “Thank you for saving my soldier’s life.”