Military tries to stem high number of suicides among personnel

An analysis released by the Pentagon in June found suicide now to be the second-leading cause of death among troops following combat. Military officials are working to stanch that trend.
by Phillip O'Connor Modified: September 22, 2012 at 9:35 pm •  Published: September 24, 2012
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Fort Sill

In July, the Army experienced 38 suicides, the highest monthly total since the service began releasing monthly figures in 2009.

This year's current Army suicide rate of 29 deaths-per-100,000 far exceeds the comparable civilian rate of 18.5 percent for a demographically similar population.

Amid the unprecedented numbers, the Army ordered its own daylong “stand down” Sept. 27 for soldiers to receive intensive suicide prevention and awareness training.

While the number of suicides in the Army has been rising, the number of such deaths among the 14,000 military personnel stationed at Fort Sill has stayed stable, averaging just more than two per year for the past 10 years. So far this year, one soldier assigned to the sprawling Army post near Lawton has committed suicide.

At Fort Hood in Texas, the Army's second largest post with more than 45,800 uniformed personnel, 122 soldiers took their own lives since the beginning of 2003, the most of any installation. At Fort Bragg, N.C., the Army's largest post with about 56,000 soldiers, 97 committed suicide during the same period.

“We've been very fortunate,” said Jay Khalifeh, Fort Sill's substance abuse program director. “We have one of the lowest, if not the lowest suicide rate (of any installation) in the Army.”

Khalifeh credited Fort Sill's vigorous suicide prevention program and a command staff that is supportive of mental health initiatives.

“The headline here should be there's a lot of people here doing things right,” Khalifeh said. “If we're not keeping them alive here in garrison … we're not doing our job.”

Khalifeh said typical triggering events for suicides at the fort have been relationship issues, pending disciplinary action or financial troubles. Statistics detailing how many of the Fort Sill soldiers who committed suicide had previously deployed were not immediately available. Most of the suicides involving the fort's personnel tend to occur either in the spring or in August.

“We've become extra vigilant around that time,” Khalifeh said.

That means more training on things like how to identify symptoms and where to get help. Promotional materials and banners are posted around the installation that emphasize a feeling of belonging, being part of a larger community that cares and watching out for each other.

“We want people to reach out when they see people in trouble,” he said.

National Guard

In 2011, four Oklahoma National Guard soldiers killed themselves. Already this year, five have taken their own lives, including two in August. This is the highest number of Oklahoma National Guard suicides in one year since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

“Anytime you lose a citizen-soldier it has an impact on that unit and we've experienced way too many suicides over the past two years,” said guard spokesman Lt. Col. Max Moss. “It's not only devastating for the friends and family of those who took their lives, it has a negative impact on us as a force.”

The soldiers, all men who ranged in age from 18 to 31, served in a variety of units, including infantry, artillery, supply and intelligence. Four had deployed, including two who served on the most recent tour with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. Moss, however, said factors other than deployments appeared to be the major contributing factor in the deaths.

Seven were facing relationship difficulties. Four had a history of excessive drug or alcohol use. Four were unemployed. Two faced criminal charges.

“Excessive alcohol use and relationship problems with family, girlfriends and others have been a deadly combination for our soldiers,” Moss said.

Changing attitudes

Maj. Gen. Myles L. Deering, who as adjutant general oversees Oklahoma's 9,400 Army and Air National Guard members, plans to meet with his top leaders in coming weeks to discuss the issue, Moss said.

A decade ago, it was common in some units to stigmatize soldiers who sought mental health treatment. Changing those attitudes throughout the ranks became a priority. Soldiers now are encouraged to consult with chaplains, behavioral health professionals and others. The Army also offers many programs designed to help soldiers and their families cope, Moss said.

“We're doing the best we can to create an environment where soldiers know it's OK to reach out for help,” he said.

NewsOK.com has disabled the comments for this article.
by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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