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Spirit of teen lives on through dash

October 13, 2013
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After Sgt. 1st Class Robert Britt's 16-year-old daughter, Sara, committed suicide in 2011, he was tempted to follow suit.

"I can't even describe the pain," said Britt, a former active-duty infantryman who works as a recruiter for the Mississippi Army National Guard.

"I thought about ways to take my own life: going deer hunting and never coming back, driving my car off a bridge."

Comrades saw that Britt was in trouble and connected him with the help he needed: three weeks of in-patient mental health care and follow-up counseling.

On Sept. 28, Britt shared his story with the soldiers of Fort Carson's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division and hundreds of others during the inaugural Sara's Smile Neon Splash Dash held at Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

The brigade's soldiers are wrapping up a nine-month tour in Kuwait.

The Mississippi Army National Guard flew Britt from his home in Grenada, Miss., to Kuwait at the behest of 1st Brigade's Capt. Tanya Roman, a longtime friend of his who organized the run in recognition of the Army's suicide prevention month.

Britt's message: Life's hard. If you're struggling, get help.

"I want to break the stigma of suicide," said Britt, who launched the nonprofit Sara's Smile to honor his daughter and encourage others to celebrate - not end - their lives.

"I want people to know that it's OK that they're feeling the way they're feeling, that suicide is not the answer - how much pain it leaves for the ones you leave behind."

The topic of suicide "has always had a black cloud following it around," Britt said.

The military has often addressed it with PowerPoint presentations that inform soldiers of where they can find help - presentations often considered ineffective.

Britt and Roman decided to tackle the sensitive topic with the splash dash, a 5-mile race featuring celebration stations where participants were squirted with rainbow glow-in-the-dark paint as they ran by.

The race was followed by a barbecue complete with a deejay, strobe lights and a photo booth. Counselors were on hand.

"The Raider Brigade is doing so many things differently than any unit I've seen," Britt said.

"They're thinking outside the box and hosting fun events to bring awareness and let people know it's OK to talk about suicide.

"It's amazing how they're leading the way."

More than 1,500 soldiers, contractors and locals who work at Camp Buehring showed up for the event.

The USO pitched in $10,000 for goodies like glow-in-the-dark paint, T-shirts for participants and chips and meat for the barbecue.

"We didn't want the run to be somber," Roman said. "We wanted it to be an exciting celebration, not only of the lives of people we've lost, but of our lives. We splashed the colors of resiliency and everybody laughed.

"We're not going to not be able to talk about suicide anymore."

Attendee Master Sgt. Kevin Sullivan said the event has been the highlight of his time at Camp Buehring.

Britt's speech about his daughter's suicide was far more moving than any PowerPoint presentation he'd ever seen on the topic.

"?'Death by PowerPoint' is something every soldier goes through," he said. "But this, the emotions that were involved were just unreal. It was a lot better than sitting there and looking at slides."

Spc. Elizabeth Erickson said the event was a rare chance for all of Camp Buehring to celebrate together.

"It was so beautiful," she said.

Britt's talk before the run was "so powerful," she added. "If you weren't crying or holding back tears, you didn't get the message. All eyes were on him."

Britt says he's sure that his daughter was watching over the event, which was colorful and upbeat like her personality.

"It just makes me feel great, bringing awareness to it and knowing that Sara has helped so many," Britt said.

"Her smile just keeps shining."

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