HAVERHILL — As part of her training in the Army, Eileen Boyle learned how to counsel suicidal soldiers, how to calm them and even talk them off a ledge – literally. So when she was driving over the Comeau Bridge at the western end of downtown recently and saw a woman who looked like she was going to jump, Boyle knew just what to do.
Just hours earlier she’d taught soldiers how to react if a fellow soldier was threatening to kill themselves, but she never imagined her training would be put into action that same day.
“I thought it might be possible to encounter this in the Army, but not out in public and certainly not that night,” Boyle said.
She stopped her car and walked up to the woman, who was sitting on the rail that separates the bridge’s pedestrian walkway from the water below. Boyle talked to the woman gently, using her Army training, and was able to convince her to give up the suicide attempt.
“Her feet were dangling over the edge and she was wobbling,” Boyle said. “I told her, ‘Ma’am, what are doing, and please come off that bridge.’ She said, ‘I want to die, I want to die.’”
On this Veterans Day weekend, the community is celebrating people like Boyle who extend their influence beyond the military and into society, whether they are still actively serving or not.
It’s a different kind of Veterans Day story, one that shows how the commitment of a military member can save lives not just on the battlefield, or on a military base, but closer to home.
Boyle, 41, a sergeant in the National Guard, says suicide in the military is a significant problem and that in an effort to save lives, soldiers receive one eight-hour block of suicide watch/prevention training each year. Boyle attended the ACE class and now assists in teaching it at the Worcester Armory, where she was returning from that day as a member of the 1166 Transportation Company. When she isn’t driving trucks for the Army, she’s drives a big rig and delivers truck trailers to customers of CJ&J Leasing in Haverhill.
Last year, Boyle was deployed overseas for convoy operations, transporting tanks and heavy equipment out of Iraq as operations there were winding down.
On Oct. 13, Boyle attended and taught an Army-approved suicide prevention and training program called “ACE” (Ask, Care, Escort) at the Worcester Armory and was on her way back to her home in Bradford. But first she stopped at her daughter’s home off of River Street for a quick visit with her grandson. Still dressed in her Army fatigues, Boyle then headed home. It was about 7:20 p.m., and Boyle was more than half way across the bridge when she saw the woman.
“I really could not believe what I was seeing,” Boyle said.
Boyle pulled her car over and parked it on the bridge, walked across the travel lanes to the side facing down river, and cautiously approached the woman without scaring her. That’s when her Army training kicked in.
“I knew I had to get personal,” Boyle said. “I told her my name, she told me hers, and it was a good 10 minutes of talking,” Boyle said.
In the meantime, drivers passing by had already called the police. Patrolman David Cox was on his way and arrived on the bridge with his cruiser’s emergency lights off, so as not to startle the woman.
Boyle’s training told her to engage a suicidal person in conversation, and let them talk about their life and what led up to their wanting to kill themselves.
“She told me her problems, which was a good sign,” Boyle said.
Without the woman noticing, Boyle gently grasped the back of the woman’s pullover with one hand, and placed her other hand on the woman’s arm to calm her and hopefully stop her if she tried to jump.
“For her this was the end,” Boyle said.
Cox wrote in his report that as he approached from behind so as not to be seen, the woman’s hands gripped the bridge rail and she was sobbing.
Boyle had the woman’s full attention, telling her to “just let it out” and “things will get better.”
“I told her I know you’re overwhelmed and you don’t know where to begin, but to take it one step at a time, and take small steps,” Boyle said.
The woman was unaware that Cox was behind her when, using hand signals, he conveyed to Boyle that they would “pull back” on the woman on a three-count. It was a textbook rescue and seconds later the woman was safely on the sidewalk, where Boyle continued to listen to her story and tell her that things will get better.
“(Boyle) was instrumental in preventing the victim from jumping, and without her actions, the victim may have succeeded in jumping,” Cox wrote in his report.
An ambulance was on its way and Boyle told the woman not to be afraid of what will happen next.
“I told her not to feel like she is alone in this,” Boyle said.
When the ambulance arrived, the woman was still holding tight to Boyle.
“She kissed me on the cheek and thanked me,” Boyle said. “The ambulance people said I did a great job and the officer said I did all the right things.”
“Sometimes when you talk about your problems, when you let it out, it’s the first step in their healing,” Boyle said. “I gave her all the time she needed to let it all out. It’s called, actively listening and caring and letting them talk.”
Since that night, Boyle has often thought about why she was driving across the bridge at that precise moment.
“Was if fate? Was it God’s plan?... I just don’t know,” Boyle said.