By Lt. Col. John ViaSeptember 6, 2012
Fort Huachuca, AZ. - -The longest war in America's history has stressed and strained service members like perhaps no other conflict. The psychological toll, and especially the soaring suicide rate, have caught the attention of the media, the public and leaders at the highest levels.
Any suicide is one too many. In the military, individual suicides forever alter the lives of those left behind in ways that exceed even normal grieving. Beyond the impact on friends and families, suicide exacts a painful toll on our formations that is uniquely devastating, perhaps even more so than casualties due to combat, accidents and illness.
But suicide is more than a personal tragedy endured by individuals and small units. With suicide rates at record levels this has become an issue of national importance. Suicide is specifically mentioned in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs' National Military Strategy. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described suicide as his "most frustrating problem" and has made tackling it a top priority by funding research and resources. Secretary of the Army John McHugh has stated, "The most important thing we do is take care of our Soldiers and take care of our Families."
Even though these national leaders are deeply concerned and incredibly motivated to save service members' lives from suicide, these tragedies continue to occur in the Army at the alarming rate of about one per day. These national leaders have focused on making resources available to service members and reducing the strain on the force. They have mandated training, campaigned to reduce stigma, and hired scores of behavioral health providers. However, the results will ultimately be determined and felt at the local level. Fort Huachuca has suffered three documented suicides in the past year. Nearly three times that many survived documented suicide attempts, although it seems likely that more attempts could have gone undetected. We have plenty of work left to do.
To prevent further tragedies and to set the tone for the rest of the year, the Army has designated September as Suicide Prevention Month. This month will be observed by a stand-down for suicide prevention training on Sept. 27, as well as other events throughout the month to increase awareness of this problem and what to do about it.
However, what matters most is putting these important programs and training into practice. Preventing suicide requires action. Just recently I had a conversation with a senior leader who recognized one of his subordinates was struggling. His work performance had dropped off, and one day in the office he just didn't seem himself. The senior leader directed his staff not to let the service member go home until he personally had a chance to talk with him, but his staff disregarded those instructions and sent him home before that conversation occurred. The senior leader insisted his staff track him down, and that military member was later discovered alive but with slit wrists. That service member nearly died from his own actions, and also from the inaction of those who failed to recognize the signs and intervene.
This story has a happy ending. Ultimately the individual returned to duty as a valued member of the team, and I can't think of a better example to simultaneously illustrate the importance of supportive leadership action and the danger posed by inaction. This month, as we pause to focus on preventing suicide, I hope we will keep positive examples like these in mind and be ready to act when it is our turn to save a life. Whether for ourselves, subordinates, colleagues or family members, the resources are there. We just need to use them.