Benning soldier says battling suicidal feelings is tougher than combat
By CHUCK WILLIAMS | The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Tribune | Published: September 9, 2016
As an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team leader, Army Staff Sgt. David Mensink was trained to deal with volatile situations.
But the 28-year-old Missouri native assigned to Fort Benning wasn’t trained to deal with the demons that led him to take 57 sleeping pills nearly three months ago in an attempt to end his life.
Thursday, Mensink received the Soldier’s Medal, the highest honor a soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation, for his actions at a Birmingham, Ala., hospital when he removed a live grenade from a man’s leg.
Instead of talking about those actions nearly two years ago, Mensink used what should have been his moment of glory to talk about his darkest hour and what has become an urgent military issue: suicide.
“I have personally been pinned down by enemy fire, blown up, have had buddies die in front of me, and I have never felt more embattled than those days I sat alone in my driveway, hours on end, wishing I could do better and wishing I could ask for help,” Mensink told about 75 soldiers at the Maneuver Center of Excellence’s Derby Hall. “At the same time, my pride and my shame and guilt kept me from doing so.”
Mensink, by his count, is no stranger to death. Over his 11-year career, he’s had 13 close friends or colleagues killed in combat — and 11 more who have taken their own lives, he said.
For months, Mensick sat in the driveway with a pistol in his lap, unable to pull the trigger.
“I felt like I had no safe place to be,” he said. “I felt like I was completely alone. I felt like I was trapped in just a world of regret. Every small thing, wishing I could change it.”
Then, on June 20, he tried something else.
“The pills were an easier method — take something, lay down and go to sleep,” said Mensink, who didn’t give specifics about the events in his life that were pushing him over the edge.
That morning, Mensink sent text messages to close friends in his unit, the 789th Ordnance Disposal Company, as well as family members, including his mother, Sherre Mensink in Ohio.
“It was not an attempt to reach out,” Mensink said. “It was an attempt to say goodbye.”
Sherre Mensink knew the situation was dire.
“As soon I read the text, I knew instantly,” she said. “You know your kids. I immediately tried to find what county Seale was in.”
She called the Russell County Sheriff’s Office for a wellness check on her son.
Meanwhile, Mensink had formulated his plan. He lived in Seale, Ala. but he drove to nearby Pittsview in the southern end of Russell County. There he left his cellphone on, knowing that it would ping on a tower and reveal his location.
He was prepared to die but not in Pittsview.
He took the pills and turned off his cellphone.
“I waited a few minutes, drove home and lay in my bed,” he said.
Sgt. 1st Class Tyron Matthews and Staff Sgt. Kyle Shelton received their goodbye texts just before noon. Like Mensink’s mother, Matthews called authorities.
“He was in trouble,” said Matthews, a platoon sergeant who’d been to war with Mensink and considered him a brother.
Matthews, who was home with his children in Fort Mitchell, immediately headed for Mensink’s home in Seale.
Shelton was also on his way. Both men found Mensink in his bed.
“Kyle Shelton and Ty Matthews forced me to wake up, and that is what caused me to start vomiting up the pills,” Mensink said. “They told me at the hospital that five or 10 more minutes (and) they would not have been able to stabilize my heart.”
Mensink said he’s telling his story so he can reach others in a similar place.
“Once you reach a certain point, there is no way to find your way back on your own,” he said. “You realize that you are truly facing an enemy that you cannot defeat by yourself — an enemy that knows every secret, every weak point and every ounce of guilt inside you. The only way to beat that enemy is to call for help.”
Today, Mensink is back with his unit and undergoing extensive outpatient treatment.
Brig. Gen. William E. King IV, commander of the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Command based in Maryland, was at Fort Benning on Thursday to present Minsink the Soldier’s Medal.
He said it took “tremendous moral courage” for Mensink to make his story public.
“It is not told much,” King said. “You don’t have many soldiers who are willing to come up and say, ‘But for lack of the grace of God, there was I, and I too almost made the wrong decision.’”
Minsink pointed out that in battle, when a soldier is alone and trapped by the enemy, “the command will move heaven and earth to save them — likewise the soldier will do everything he can to save himself.”
But it is different when the battle is within.
“When you are sitting alone at home trapped by your own demons, it’s hard to tell the difference in the two,” Mensink said. “You want to reach out to those that you know would fight any day with you and would fight to their last breath with you, but you think you are being weak. You feel that you should suck it up and drive on and push to try and fight it, that they wouldn’t understand and you shouldn’t feel like this.”
You don’t seek help, Mensink said.
“Some would say it is the soldier’s choice that they let themselves get where they are and they didn’t ask for help,” he said. “We as soldiers are especially taught that if something is physically difficult, you suck it up, you drive on and keep going.”
Matthews, who helped save Mensink in June, was in the auditorium to hear his buddy share the story.
“He took this opportunity and platform to address a serious issue that is going on across the Army as a whole,” Matthews said. “I got chills. He didn’t take this opportunity to talk about himself or his accomplishments. He took this opportunity to address a serious issue.”
It’s an issue that the Army and the military is struggling with daily. According to numbers released by the Pentagon earlier this year, military suicides have steadily increased over the past seven years — last year, 265 active duty service members killed themselves.
King said the attitude used to be “buck up; deal with it; work your way through it.”
“What he just did was remind people that here is a staff sergeant, a team leader in this organization, and he has vulnerabilities like the rest of us,” King said. “He is struggling like the rest of us.”
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