Army veteran Andrew O’Brien is on a mission.
O’Brien travels the country and abroad telling the story of how he almost took his life while enlisted in the Army. The date was Nov. 22, 2010.
O’Brien recalled his experience during his speech for the garrison’s observance of Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month on Sept. 7 at the Post Theater.
The 75-minute event was sponsored by the Fort Meade Army Substance Abuse Program.
Heather McNany, Fort Meade’s Suicide Prevention Program manager, said ASAP is the Fort Meade community’s resource for suicide prevention.
“We’re here and we want people to use us — generously,” she said.
O’Brien spoke to an audience of service members and Department of the Army civilians.
“I believe everything happens for a reason and I believe I’m alive today because I’m supposed to be,” he said.
Lt. Col. Gittipong Paruchabutr, commander of Headquarters Command Battalion, welcomed the audience on behalf of Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard.
“This is serious business,” Paruchabutr said. “Suicide is not unique to the Army. We have the same problems. … Talk to somebody if you’re having real issues. You’re truly not alone.”
Deputy Garrison Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Cooper gave the invocation.
Deputy Garrison Commander Andy Albright and Command Sgt. Maj. Edward Elliot of Headquarters Command Battalion also attended the event.
O’Brien spoke from the theater stage as he recounted a childhood of poverty in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.
He said his mother was a prostitute and brought clients home to the Motel 6 where she lived with O’Brien and an older brother.
“I was born into war,” he said.
As a teenager, O’Brien sold drugs and became addicted to meth from ages 15 to 17.
“I’ve been jumped, stabbed, had guns pointed to my head,” he said. “I was the epitome of a crack head.”
O’Brien said he had only two options for his life — prison or death.
“College was never an option,” he said. “I hated school.”
His brother joined the Army and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C. After visiting his brother and witnessing the camaraderie of his battle buddies, O’Brien decided to enlist in 2007.
He completed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
In 2008, O’Brien was assigned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and began serving as a truck driver.
Later that year, he deployed to Iraq. Within three months he was promoted to lead gunner for a military police convoy.
“For the first time in my life, I had a mission. I had a purpose. I had meaning,” O’Brien said. “I loved my job.”
According to his website, one day O’Brien saw the remains of comrades killed by an IED while driving another convoy. O’Brien never told anyone what he saw.
When he returned to Hawaii after his deployment, O’Brien said the transition was difficult.
“I went from a lead gunner to a janitor in 48 hours,” he said. “The hardest part of my transition was going from something so meaningful with so much purpose to cleaning rocks and cleaning rooms and picking up cigarettes. I hated it.”
O’Brien started drinking heavily and racing cars. He said he was arrested for racing a car down the highway while he was enlisted.
O’Brien said he eventually went to the Army Substance Abuse Program to see a counselor. His evaluation forbade him to carry a weapon.
He said that when his leadership found out, he was ridiculed.
“I was called a piece of crap of a Soldier,” he said. “This was hard for me to be made fun of for seeking help that the Army, that these trainings always told me to do.
“So I stopped. I stopped seeking help. I did what I’ve been doing my entire life. I’ll just push it down. I’ll just ignore it. I’ll act like it didn’t happen.”
But his life struggles eventually led O’Brien to attempt suicide.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I hit my mental failure,” he said. “Every day my life has been a war. That’s why I’m a warrior.
“I was tired of being a warrior. I was mentally exhausted.”
O’Brien swallowed four bottles of pills that included an anti-depressant and pain relievers. He became angry that death didn’t come immediately, so he punched holes in the walls of his house.
Ironically, he also took a deep breath. In an instant, he realized he made a mistake and dialed 911. Then he blacked out.
He woke up in the intensive care unit of a hospital after his stomach was pumped. O’Brien said he then realized he was lucky not to become a suicide statistic.
He also thought of his two battle buddies who died by suicide the year before.
In early 2011, O’Brien separated from the Army and eventually became a motivational speaker, spreading the message about the importance of seeking help for suicidal ideation and not making the ultimate decision to end one’s life.
O’Brien has traveled to South Korea and Japan and is looking forward to trips to Germany and Russia.
“Every negative thing that has happened in my life has made me stronger,” he said. “Nothing in this life that is thrown at me will make me quit ever again.”
After the speech, O’Brien took questions from the audience.
Maj. Jason Main of the Asymmetric Warfare Group stood up and shared how he contemplated taking his life due to his lengthy alcohol use.
“I voluntarily self-reported to the Fort Meade ASAP program with the full support of my Command in July of 2015,” Main wrote in an email after the event. “I then spent 28 days at the Fort Belvoir Army Community Hospital for alcohol abuse treatment. The support I received from the leadership and fellow members of AWG took the falsely perceived ‘stigma’ out of asking for help.”
“I then graduated from the ASAP program here nearly a year later and now have over 26 months sober.”
Main said his message to other service members and civilians is to seek help.
“Don’t wait until you’re told [or] ordered to attend one of these programs,” he wrote. “Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakeness.”
Lt. Col. Felicia Eaddy, inspector general for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington Office of the Inspector General, said O’Brien’s story was compelling and emotional.
“This young gentleman, who is a veteran, proved that no matter where you come from, you don’t have to be a part of your past,” Eaddy said. “You can survive and prosper.”