Army Works To Prevent Suicides
Over the past few years, an increasing number of military members have committed suicide. And 2010 is shaping up to be a record year. Army officials are trying to respond to the trend. This week, the Army released a new video that will become must-see TV for all soldiers. And leaders on Fort Bragg are rolling out resources for soldiers and their families to prevent more suicides from taking place. A couple of years ago, Army Specialist Joseph Sanders was despondent. He was deployed in Iraq when his wife asked him for a divorce. Friends noticed he was depressed, not his usual talkative self. One day, Sanders put a rifle to his chin and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, Specialist Albert Godding anticipated this would happen. He removed the firing pin from Sanders' weapon the night before. This incident is told as part of the Army's new suicide prevention video that will be required viewing for all soldiers. It's part of an effort by military officials to respond to an increase in soldier suicides. It went from 115 three years ago to 162 last year. "We're now at 85 active-duty suicides" throughout the Army, says Larry Holland, who manages the suicide prevention program on Fort Bragg. "We're over halfway there to break that number again, sadly." And that doesn't include the many suicides among members of the Reserves, National Guard and people who've recently left the military. Holland and other leaders at Bragg say there are new programs and resources available for soldiers and their families both on and off base. The Army recently received millions from Congress for the effort. But even before that, it was beefing up the number of mental health professionals on base. "It is truly a case of if you build it, they will come," says Col. Ed Crandell, who heads behavioral health at Womack Army Medical Center. "And we have seen an increase in demand, not only at Fort Bragg but across the Army, for behavioral health services. We are an Army at war, obviously, and that has created tremendous stress, not just in the area of suicide, but in the area of variety of post deployment adjustment issues." Crandell says it's not deployment per se that's causing the rising number of suicides. He says many of the same issues are at play as in civilian suicides: Relationship problems, professional failures and finances. But deployment exacerbates those problems for young soldiers and their families. That's why the military is moving to shorten deployments down to nine months with as much as three years in between. And the Army's working to reduce the stigma surrounding asking for help. For example, in the past, to maintain security clearance, a soldier had to periodically answer a survey that included questions about whether he or she had sought psychological help. It often meant losing the security clearance. But, Crandell says that's changed. "Now the question runs pretty much along the lines of, 'With the exception of issues related to deployment, marriage, family . . . have you sought out care?' So you don't have to disclose if you're going in for behavioral health care, or seeing someone for marital counseling or things like that." Army chaplain Colonel Tim Leever says the army is also training regular soldiers - battle buddies - who will be in every unit watching out for their comrades. "If a soldier is concerned about that stigma, he may not want to come to a chaplain with rank on his shoulders, or something like that. But, if he has a buddy who has this training, he goes to him," Leever says. Leever and Larry Holland have already trained about 450 of these battle buddies. And Holland says he understands the temptation to despair. He served as a chaplain for decades and heard all the stories. But he lived his own after his second deployment to Iraq "My marriage of 32 years fell apart. Never thought that would happen. I started self-medicating and drinking heavily." He says suicide was a fleeting thought. Holland couldn't do that to his family and friends, but he wanted to die. "I know how people feel when they get to that point, when they're so hopelessly, helplessly despaired," he says. Holland hopes that soldiers in crisis will learn that they can get through it, the same way he did - by asking for help.