Seven years ago, Heather McNany was a social worker serving military veterans at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
During her first week at work, two clients died by suicide.
One veteran showed no signs of distress. He was seen by a doctor, nurse and McNany before taking his life.
McNany, Fort Meade’s new Suicide Prevention Program manager, recalled how devastated the clinic’s staff was by the suicide.
“He was a favorite of the clinic,” McNany said of the veteran. “I remember how sad we all were that it happened.”
From that day forward, McNany said, she vowed to herself that she was going to remain hypervigilant to her clients’ needs and to do her best to ensure that each individual who walked through the door knew they had at least one lifeline should they ever need it.
The threat of suicide is insidious. The fact that anyone can slip through the cracks by presenting no apparent symptoms is a warning to be vigilant, McNany said.
“I made up my mind to ask about suicide at every appointment,” she said.
In screening service members and veterans for suicide ideation, McNany said she was surprised to learn how many men and women were open to answer the question of whether they intend to harm themselves.
“Suicide reduction is taken very strongly by the military,” she said. “Service members make it through such crazy things and they come back here on home soil and they struggle.”
Today, McNany is committed to making suicide prevention synonymous with Fort Meade’s Army Substance Abuse Program.
“I want ASAP to be seen as an important resource and guide for people,” she said.
McNany began her tenure at ASAP on July 10. She replaces Torrie Osterholm, who is leaving in August to work as a licensed social worker specializing in trauma medicine at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Before coming to Fort Meade, McNany was the ASAP manager at Fort Greely, Alaska. She said she was a “one-man, one-woman shop,” responsible for the installation’s entire substance abuse prevention and treatment program.
“Suicide prevention was one of my most important tasks as the ASAP manager,” McNany said. “It’s wonderful to be at Fort Meade to get a chance to focus full time on the suicide prevention piece.”
A native of Salt Lake City, McNany said her father’s lifelong struggle with alcohol helped to shape her career goals.
“My dad had a serious alcohol issue,” she said. “He died prematurely at 44 due to complications from diabetes and alcohol.”
While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Valdosta State University in Georgia, McNany researched a paper on alcoholism and genetics. She discovered the definite biological link and realized she was susceptible to the disease.
Her grandfather and great-grandfather also struggled with alcohol.
“Research shows that when one or both parents are alcoholics, you have four times the risk of developing it as an issue,” McNany said.
She said she knew then that alcohol and drugs would not be a part of her life after seeing the tragic impact on her father’s life. But she also knew that it is possible to love a person who struggles with substance use disorders and hate the disease.
McNany earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Utah. Her professional experience includes working as a counseling therapist supervisor at the Utah State Prison for eight years.
She also worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs for five years.
McNany said that in her 16 years as a social worker, she has worked with people “in the throes of tragedy.”
She has counseled men and women in prison who were convicted of abusing or killing a spouse or a child while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
And yet, McNany said, she has seen the humanity of the incarcerated firsthand.
“I was surprised how normal they were,” she said. “Some could have been my brother, sister. They engaged in high-risk choices that led to serious consequences.”
McNany said substance use disorders can lead some people to commit heinous crimes and when they become sober, they realize the enormity of their actions and are filled with regret.
She said her clients were not hardened criminals.
In her new position, McNany wants to continue to promote the Army’s signature suicide-prevention programs — ACE (Ask, Care, Escort) and the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training Program for the Fort Meade community. She is also planning events for the September observance of Suicide Prevention Month.
McNany believes the military has come a long way in trying to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for personal struggles and reducing suicide, but believes there is still much work to do.
“The Army Substance Abuse Program is a truly rich resource for our Soldiers, their families and DoD civilians,” she said.