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Army Vice Chief Peter Chiarelli Addresses Soldier Suicides, Drug Abuse

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, has served in the U.S. military for nearly 40 years.
Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, has served in the U.S. military for nearly 40 years.

As we reported earlier, the U.S. Army has released a report that concludes it has not paid enough attention to mental health issues, which can lead to violence, drug abuse and suicide.

In an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, said that, while multiple deployments certainly contribute to those issues, there are many other causes.

"I think it's a function of many, many things," he said. "I think that the two prolonged wars we're fighting have caused stressors to occur in the force, but I don't think they can be divorced from the other stressors that soldiers are under, including family and professional problems.

In the All Things Considered interview, Siegel read aloud an incredible footnote from the report:

At 24 years of age, a soldier -- on average -- has moved from home, family and friends, and has resided in two other states, has traveled the world, deployed, been promoted four times, bought a car and wrecked it, married and had children, has had relationship and financial problems, seen death, is responsible for dozens of soldiers, maintains millions of dollars of equipment, and gets paid less than $40,000 a year.

According to Chiarelli, although stigma associated with mental health issues remains a problem, the Army has made progress eroding it.

"We are doing everything we can to stamp out stigma," he said. "That is our goal, and I think this report goes a long way in showing how serious we are about doing that."

I think we're taking a leadership role in telling our soldiers that they need to get the help that they need. And leaders need to set the kind of command environment that allows soldiers to get the help that they need for these very, very difficult issues.

The report was based on one year's worth of data, from 2009. According to Chiarelli, he and his colleagues would like to have access to more information.

Addressing high levels of prescription drug abuse among the Army's ranks, Chiarelli said that the service is working actively to identify alternative methods of pain control.

According to Chiarelli, the Army has to change the culture on bases in the U.S., as soldiers continue to fight two wars overseas, acknowledging that is a tall order.

"I believe that is something that we need to work on right now," he said. "As the time that units and individuals spend at home increases, we've got to go back and emphasize some of these skills."

We focused on those skills necessary to put our soldiers in harm's way, and we deemphasized some of the other skills, because we just didn't have time. Well, now's the time to go back and look at those.

In 2009, at the outset of the survey that led to this report, Chiarelli spoke with Siegel onAll Things Considered.

"Sir, this is - this is not business as usual," he said at the time. "These numbers are high, and we are going to look at every single facet of the Army to make a determination on what we can find out, and what we need to do."

Asked to reflect on what he's learned in the intervening 15 months, Chiarelli said the issues are far more complicated than he expected, and he realizes there is "no single button you can push" to fix them.

You can read the report -- in its entirety -- here.

Earlier today, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that, "as a result of this study, the Army better understands how the stress of nearly 10 years of war has hindered the effectiveness of policies and programs designed to track the welfare of its people."

The Army has much to do to restore the safeguards that have been neglected, but this report reflects the Army’s commitment to taking care of soldiers and reducing high risk behavior related to suicide and accidental death.  The House Armed Services Committee will monitor the Army’s progress very closely and assist the Army’s effort wherever possible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.