Content warning: This article includes references to suicide and self-harm. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
Lara Salahi was yawning over the phone. She’d just rolled off the 4 a.m. shift at NBC Boston, where she moonlights as a producer when she’s not teaching broadcast and digital journalism at Endicott College.
But at that moment, the Associate Professor of Broadcast and Digital Journalism was in multi-tasking mom mode, picking up her two young children from the school carpool line and no doubt punching straws into juice boxes while firing back deeply thoughtful responses to interview questions.
Salahi does many things well all at once.
Most recently, that included reporting an investigative three-part story with the support of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. “I spent my entire career trying to get away from local news,” she said. “I really didn’t understand the power it holds. But now I know that it’s not enough to just sit high up in a big newsroom.”
For the past two years, she’s seen that power firsthand, reporting on the ground in her own Massachusetts backyard, one raw interview at a time. The first installment of the resulting three-part feature, ‘When They Came Home They Were on Their Own’—National Guard Grapples With Suicide Rate was published February 2 on The War Horse, a nonprofit journalism platform known for conveying the lived reality of military service. The second and third segments of Salahi’s feature will be released on February 7 and 9, respectively.
The story examines a Massachusetts National Guard infantry battalion that deployed on a combat mission to Afghanistan in 2011. After they returned stateside, Salahi, an Army wife herself, followed their updates on social media channels and noticed a tragic pattern: “Within one year, four of the soldiers in one platoon had died by suicide,” she said. Over the next decade, that number grew to an even greater number of deaths reported.
While the percentage of lives lost is uniquely high for one battalion, suicide is such a widespread problem for the Department of Defense (DoD) that the Defense Suicide Prevention Office was created in 2011.
In 2021 alone, the DoD reported that 519 service members died by suicide. That was the year things got personal for Salahi; one member who took his own life had lived with Salahi and her husband before enlisting.
“I have got to figure this out,” a saddened Salahi promised herself. “I have to tell this story, and somebody has got to be interested in publishing it.”
The reporting was heavy and demanded nearly two years of interviews with wary sources, crisscrossing the state in her car to pose difficult questions to courageous service members who relived painful experiences. Salahi’s story digs deep into how resilience is defined and taught in a military context—both on the battlefield and in its aftermath.
“This pervasive culture tells soldiers that resilience is about bouncing back and if they experience something traumatic to ‘soldier through,’ which to some can mean to ‘suck it up.’”
But what about once the fight is over and Guard members are back home working in their everyday roles as “our firefighters, teachers, and neighbors?”
Digging into psychological research, Salahi examined how the soldiers struggled to adapt to their home environments after displaying great resilience in combat in Afghanistan.
The prestigious Carter Center grant—which came with helpful mentors, plus the support of research assistant Maria Wilson ’22—kept her going. “This work truly kept me up at night,” Salahi said. “I wanted to tell the story accurately for the sake of all who trusted me, and to help advance the national conversation about this epidemic.”
This dogged perseverance is what makes Salahi a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist; she was part of the remarkable Boston Globe team awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for on-the-ground, breaking news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings. In 2018, she and computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti co-authored Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis and the Next Epidemic.
Perseverance is also the quality she passes on to students at Endicott. She often advises them: “You’ve got to want it. If you’re the type of person with an entrepreneurial spirit, then this is the career for you. The path to get there is different for everybody.”
In Salahi’s case, she grew up in a Middle Eastern American family of physicians in metro Detroit. Those closest to her initially questioned her decision to jump into a journalism career. After graduating from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and international relations, she grabbed a general assignment reporter role at a local ABC station. Soon after, when medical news became her niche, a lightbulb went off, and her family understood.
At Endicott, Salahi encourages her students to dig into local news first, helping them land internships and jobs in partnership with small, adept outlets, and to embed themselves in the communities they care about to understand its ethnography over time.
“You can’t just parachute in and tell the story and leave thinking you’ve told the full story in context and with nuance,” she said. “And with many local news outlets disappearing or hanging by a thread, there's less chance for us to truly know what is happening inside of many communities."
Salahi’s work is a vocation and not one for the faint-hearted. Even the best journalism pieces are only impactful if they land hard with an audience if they are shared, quoted, or even torn apart in social media. This week, as her story broke, Salahi held her breath waiting to see how it knocked down, lifted up, angered, or offered closure to the readers.
“As journalists, we are the trust receivers,” she said. “I teach my students that we can practice the profession of journalism, but we are also there to educate our audiences. We can put out information, but the way in which it’s received is the crucible moment.”