‘Culture change’ may be required to resolve issues
September 13, 2008 – Some local Army families are calling for the military to boost its efforts to curb suicide within the ranks. Some of the Army’s top commanders admit suicide is a growing problem as soldiers remain in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Army leaders are fully aware that repeated deployments have led to increased distress and anxiety for both soldiers and their families,” said Secretary of the Army Pete Geren in a news release.
“This stress on the force is validated by recent studies of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.”
According to Army figures, there have been 62 confirmed suicides this year, and potentially 31 more pending cause of death confirmations. There have been five confirmed suicides at Fort Campbell this fiscal year.
In 2006 and 2007, there were 217 confirmed suicides in the Army.
Fort Campbell has seen its share of suicides, but officials say they’re doing all they can to prevent soldiers from taking their lives.
“Fort Campbell is leading the Army in many aspects,” said Joe Varney, suicide prevention program manager.
Currently, Varney is the only suicide prevention program manager in the country. He started in his position a month ago.
“It’s part of Fort Campbell taking the lead in suicide prevention training,” Varney said.
Rand said Fort Campbell began training soldiers and family members on the risk indicators and how to address them about a year ago. Since then, Varney said, about 15,000 have completed training.
It has also instituted an Army program called ACE, or Ask, Care, Escort.
Widow: Fort Campbell should do more
Dena Rand, the wife of a Fort Campbell soldier who killed himself in February 2007, said the Army post can do more.
Rand said she met with mental and behavioral health providers at Fort Campbell after her husband’s death to investigate, but she did not receive the response she hoped for.
“I’m still on a mission to get my questions answered,” she said.
Soldiers returning from combat are put through a lengthy post-deployment health assessment to try and identify any problems, but revising the process might help, Rand said.
“Instead of putting them all in the same room, pull them aside,” she said.
The Army, though, has not taken the issue lightly.
It has ramped up its efforts at the lowest levels to encourage first-line leaders to recognize and address potential problems they might find, according to a news release.
The intended effect, the release stated, is “better recognition of stressors such as failed relationships, legal and financial problems and occupational and operational issues that can contribute to suicidal behavior.”
Varney said it is common for a person considering suicide to leave clues they are battling stress and depression, and helping them is all about finding the clues.
“Nobody wants to die, not even everybody who is suicidal,” he said.
Fort Campbell soldiers are again put through a post-deployment health reassessment 101 days after returning.
Blanchfield Army Community Hospital officials also said they have a detailed process to address behavioral and mental health issues, but that process has come under fire recently.
Spc. Carl B. McCoy, 23, a former Fort Campbell soldier who transferred from Fort Bragg in May, killed himself in July, a day after a scheduled mental health appointment at BACH was canceled, his family claims.
“They didn’t give him an option,” his wife, Sgt. Maggie McCoy, said.
Part of the Army’s effort is to remove a common stigma officials said accompanies mental and behavioral health.
“It is critical for soldiers, family members and Army civilians to know that seeking help during times of stress is a sign of strength, not weakness,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Languirand, chief of the Army Command Policy and Programs division, in a news release.
“That’s a good start,” she said.
No overnight change
Varney echoed Languirand’s statements, but he said it is not something that will change overnight or even within six months.
“It’s going to require a culture change,” he said.
Varney’s solution is rather simple — education.
“It’s an education process — trying to make soldiers and families aware,” he said.
Another way to help, Rand said, is for spouses and family members to do their own investigating and to not take any issue lightly.
“My regret was reacting and not acting on (signs of trouble),” she said.
Some key things she said could indicate potential trouble include mood swings, isolation or violence.
Rand said she hopes to start a support group for spouses and families of soldiers who committed suicide — something she said was not available to her.