Army Secretary Pete Geren said that if the Army was going to succeed in reducing the number of suicides in the service it was going to have reach down to all in its ranks and partner with the Veterans Administration, the National Institute of Mental Health and other agencies in addressing the issue that claimed at least 128 soldiers’ lives last year.
“Is there a silver bullet out there? I’m confident there isn’t,” he said. Geren pledged to allocate the resources “human and financial” to bolster suicide prevention efforts in the Army and set a model for the nation.
The Army suicide rate in 2008 was 20.2 percent per 100,000; and for the first time in almost three decades surpassed the civilian suicide rate among individuals of the same ages and backgrounds. The civilian rate was 19.5 per 100,000 in 2006, the last year data was available. Fifteen additional Army deaths are still under review by the Armed Forces Medical Investigator.
“There is no doubt in my mind that stress is a factor,” Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff and the leader of the service’s suicide prevention effort, said at a Jan. 29 meeting with reporters.
About 30 percent of the Army suicides were among soldiers deployed overseas. Seventy-eight percent of the suicides were among soldiers on their first deployment. More than half of the Army suicides on home station occurred within a year after deployment.
In announcing a stand-down for every unit between Feb. 15 and March 15 and follow-up chain teaching, Chiarelli said, “This is not business as usual. We need to move quickly to do everything we can to reverse the very disturbing number of suicides we have in the U.S. Army.”
Adding, “We are pre-positioning materials that will be available for their use in conducting that stand-down with their soldiers, and in addition to that, we will follow up that period with a chain-teach that is designed to get out to every single soldier and down the chain of command, and that will be conducted in a 120-day period after 15 March.
“We'll ask commanders to complete that chain teach. But a review of what we've done before is absolutely crucial. The second thing that is absolutely crucial is that we reach out to soldiers and tell them that it is not wrong to ask for help. We have to change our culture.”
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston said this effort was similar to the Army’s earlier programs addressing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Mj. Gen. John Hawkins, from the G-1 office, said, “We believe that behavior is something that we must get at – the behavior of the soldiers that may be thinking about this but not willing to talk about it because of potential stigmas and also the behavior of our soldiers that are heroes on the battlefield and must be heroes in the barracks or heroes downtown, that they must be willing to ask a fellow soldier, are you having problems? They must be willing to care enough to listen to that and they must be willing enough to escort – not say, I think you should go – but to escort that soldier to a location where he or she can get that care.”
As to the reasons for a soldier committing suicide, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general, said, “We've looked for years at what we consider the precipitating factor and for years it's been problems with relationships – either marital relationships, family relationships or relationships with the unit. That's stayed about constant. In about two-thirds to three-quarters of cases, we see that and the other cases are usually legal, financial and occupational difficulty.”
Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, Army assistant surgeon general for force protection, said there are programs and people already available to soldiers and their families that can assist in preventing suicides, but getting them to overcome the stigma of using the programs was critical.
“In terms of the care available, of course we've got mental health care, psychological health care, chaplains, Military OneSource, if they're eligible for the V.A., they can go there. We have a number of programs that the Installation Management Command has. We're starting some new programs like Warrior Adventure Quest. There's a whole range of program available. The challenge is often that the soldier is reluctant to go seek care, and that's the piece that we really have to work on.”