Army vice chief addresses suicide rate across Army
March 31, 2009
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Army News Service, March 31, 2009) -- Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli stopped at Fort Bragg, March 25, as part of his eight-day trip to seven installations across the country to take a look at programs in place for suicide prevention.
"This (trip) is part of the multi-disciplinary approach the Army is working right now," said Chiarelli about efforts to lower suicide rates.
"It causes us to look at all the factors that come into play here. It's not just mental health-care providers; it's substance abuse counselors, marriage counselors and chaplains. We're looking at (warrior transition units) and that population as we go around also."
The Army reported that in 2008, 143 Soldiers committed suicide. That is the highest rate since the Army began keeping record in 1980. This year, 12 deaths in January and two in February have been ruled as suicides. Twelve deaths in January and 16 in February are still under investigation as to the cause of death.
Determining the reason for increased suicide rates is difficult, officials agree. In 2008, one third of the Soldiers had never deployed, one-third were deployed at the time of death and the remaining third had deployed, but were back home.
"Each case is unique and different," said Lt. Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, a public affairs advisor from headquarters, Department of the Army, Office of the Vice Chief of Staff. "(Suicide prevention) is truly the most complex issue we have to deal with."
Chiarelli said he committed earlier this year to personally review each suicide case in 2009. Three weeks ago, he received his first briefing. Via teleconference, he talked with commanders across the Army who had lost Soldiers to suicide.
"It was the most intense two and a half hours I have ever spent, even from being in a combat zone. To listen to the stories I heard with these 15 cases. It was an experience I will never forget," said Chiarelli.
While each situation is different, Chiarelli said that there are some red flags.
"A common theme I see, when the red flag goes up for me, is when someone is having a relationship problem," said Chiarelli. "We saw it in over 70 percent of the cases last year ... seeing it start with a relationship problem compounded with another issue that occurs. It could be financial, medical, substance abuse or trouble with the law."
One of the measures Chiarelli mandated for all Soldiers was participation in suicide prevention training that included an interactive video showing the difficulties two noncommissioned officers and their families were facing after a deployment. The Soldiers got to make decisions at various points in the video about how to help the characters and those decisions affected the next clip.
"If the right decisions are made, you save his life and get him the help he needs. Make the wrong decisions and the last scene puts you at his funeral," said Chiarelli. "It's a very powerful way to get the message across. The video allows you to learn from the decisions you make, both the good and the bad."
Lt. Col. Jason Thornton, Bragg's Warrior Transition Battalion commander, met with Chiarelli during his visit to discuss what the WTB is doing to address suicide prevention. The WTB used the interactive video as part of its suicide prevention training and Thornton ensured that everyone participated as a team.
"Each company commander and selected command representatives were trained on how to lead and facilitate the 'Beyond the Front' interactive video," said Thornton. "This allowed squad leaders and platoon sergeants to participate in the training with their Soldiers, reinforcing the theme that we are all, leaders and Soldiers alike, in this together."
In addition to teaching Soldiers to recognize suicidal cues, the Army continues to look for ways to help Soldiers cope with stress and work on their relationship with their spouse. The "Strong Bonds" marriage enrichment retreat is one of the programs offered to Soldiers to strengthen their relationships.
"Relationships are stressed when Soldiers leave home for a year and do it repeatedly. I've done it twice myself in this particular war, but some of the Soldiers I've talked to here at Bragg have deployed three, four, five, even six times. That can't help but put a strain on a relationship," said Chiarelli.
While Chiarelli stressed the importance of continuing to find programs to help people mend relationships, he also said that one of the things he's learned while touring installations is the need for more mental health care professionals.
"What we need to continue to work on the hardest is to continue to find ways to bring on mental health care providers and bring them down to a level where Soldiers have easier access to them, throughout the entire deployment cycle," said Chiarelli.
He also said that the military and the American public need to work toward eliminating the stigma associated with getting help. One of the future options may be allowing Soldiers to initiate mental health care through the Internet to help break down the stigma and get them the help they need.
"We will not accept this high rate of suicide," said Chiarelli. "We are going to do everything we possibly can to drive it down."
(Eve Meinhardt writes for the Paraglide newspaper at Fort Bragg, N.C.)