U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta didn't sugar coat it when speaking recently about the increase in the number of suicides by service members. Panetta called it an epidemic, one the armed forces intends to try to corral.
“We are a family, and by God we have to take care of our family members,” he said.
In June, the Pentagon said the number of active-duty military who had died by suicide to that point this year outpaced the number killed in Afghanistan. In July, 38 suicides occurred in the Army alone. As part of suicide prevention month, observed in September, military brass are emphasizing the availability of mental health services and the importance of taking advantage of them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a campaign called “Stand by Them.” It's asking individuals and communities to support veterans in crisis and help raise awareness of VA mental health services.
The problem of suicide in the military hits close to home. Oklahoma has three Air Force bases and an Army fort, along with a robust National Guard presence and thousands of military retirees. Tinker Air Force Base has seen two suicides this year; since the beginning of 2011, nine Oklahoma National Guard members and four soldiers stationed at Fort Sill have killed themselves.
Only one of the Fort Sill suicides occurred this year, and in the past decade its average of just more than two per year is lower than most other Army installations. The fort's substance abuse program director credits a strong suicide prevention program and commanding officers who support mental health initiatives.
A similar mindset is found in the Oklahoma National Guard, which has experienced five deaths by suicide this year. Where once it wasn't unusual in some units to stigmatize soldiers who requested mental health treatment, now the opposite occurs. “We're doing the best we can to create an environment where soldiers know it's OK to reach out for help,” said Lt. Col. Max Moss, guard spokesman.
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