Story by SN Imani Daniels on 09/19/2019NORFOLK, Va. (Sept. 13, 2019) September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. All month, mental health advocates, prevention organizations, survivors, allies, and community members unite to promote suicide prevention awareness. For the month of September, Branch Health Clinic (BHC) Naval Station Norfolk is displaying 79 pairs of combat boots to remember the 79 service members who were lost to suicide in 2018.
"Have you seen the boots?" is an initiative to identify and remember Sailors who are lost to suicide, and to try to figure out what it is that we, as a community, are missing when it comes to this tragedy. The initiative is also a way to aid in bringing awareness to ways you can prevent losing someone you love or hold dearly.
"We came up with the idea of getting boots to display, one pair of boots for every person who was lost to suicide in 2018," said Peggy Smith, Health and Promotions nurse educator. "We found the exact number and concluded we needed 79 pairs of boots, which were donated to us from an Army mission that could not be fulfilled; the Navy could not use them because they couldn't keep Sailors safe there are no steel toes in them. To prevent the boots from being destroyed, we decided to take them and use them for something that could bring awareness to the community."
The boots are painted white as a memory, and laced with purple laces to identify that these individuals passed away from suicide.
"These are no longer just boots or material objects; the boots represent people," Smith said. "These boots are our peers, someone's mother, father, child and/or coworker. This material object has its own life. It's not just 79 pairs of boots, it is 79 immediate families who are affected by loss."
Along with the pairs of boots, there are handwritten notes from loved ones and peers of the fallen individuals. At the end of the month, the notes will be used to create a mural of messages to remember those Sailors and their families.
"We want to impact our community with these boots," Smith said. "The handwritten cards that are put inside the boots from people who have lost someone they know or love is very important to our mission. It is important because not only does it give the person writing the note a sense of emotional release despite it being hard to do, it also opens the eyes of our community."
There are approximately 17 commands and several different community programs who contacted Smith to display the boots at their organization, so they can also bring awareness to more people.
"We want to encourage people to check on others, to really see how they're doing, and if they are ok; you never know what someone is going through," Smith said.
Suicide often stems from a deep feeling of hopelessness. The inability to see solutions to problems or to cope with challenging life circumstances may lead people to see taking their own lives as the only solution to what is really a temporary situation.
"In order to raise awareness to suicide prevention, we have to understand it," Smith said. "We need to understand that most suicides are not just impulse decisions, for some people it is a long downward spiral. With suicide, it is not about someone wanting to die, it's about these individuals trying to stop whatever pain they're dealing with."
It is Smith's certainty that every person is important, every person has value and every person has worth.
"My goal is to someday not have to paint and prepare any boots, but until then we will paint and prepare a pair for every person that we lose so that way we can honor them," Smith said.
As the U. S. Navy's oldest, continuously-operating hospital since 1830, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth proudly serves past and present military members and their families. The nationally acclaimed, state of the art medical center, including its ten branch and TRICARE Prime clinics, serves the Hampton Roads area and additionally offers premier research and teaching programs designed to prepare new doctors, nurses and hospital corpsmen for future roles in healing and wellness.