In another sign the military is changing its attitude toward suicide, President Barack Obama announced last week condolence letters will now be sent to the families of soldiers who commit suicide when deployed to combat zones.
"This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly," the president said in an announcement released by the White House. "This issue is emotional, painful and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change. Our men and women in uniform have borne the incredible burden of our wars, and we need to do everything in our power to honor their service, and to help them stay strong for themselves, for their families and for our nation."
In May, the Army reported there were 21 potential suicides among active-duty soldiers. One death was confirmed as suicide and 20 still are under investigation. For April, the Army reported 16 potential suicides among active-duty soldiers, with two deaths confirmed as suicide and 14 still under investigation.
Among non-deployed 3rd Infantry Division soldiers assigned to Fort Benning and Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield, three suicides were confirmed among active-duty soldiers in 2010 and so far this year, one military family member and four suicides among active-duty members were reported, according to Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson. Figures for 3rd ID soldiers who possibly committed suicide while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan were not available.
"I support the president’s decision," 3rd ID commander Maj. Gen. Abe Abrams said in an emailed statement. "I send condolence to family members of any soldier in the 3rd Infantry Division who dies, regardless of the circumstances, including suicides. The family remains part of our Army family and we grieve the loss of their loved one as well. The soldier’s service deserves to be recognized and we want the family to know we will always be there for them. Further, we will continue to honor our fallen soldiers, combat or non-combat incidents, with an eastern red bud at Warriors Walk."
According to an American Forces Press Service story, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli expressed regret over not recognizing one soldier’s suicide as a result of war during a 2004-05 deployment to Iraq.
"I lost 169 soldiers during that year-long deployment," Chiarelli is quoted as saying. "However, the monument we erected at Fort Hood, Texas, in memoriam lists 168 names. I approved the request of others not to include the name of the one soldier who committed suicide. I deeply regret my decision.
"The persistent high operational tempo of this war, the terrible things some have seen or experienced in combat have undoubtedly taken a toll on them," he continued. "Many are struggling with the ‘invisible wounds’ of this war, including traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. Any attempt to characterize these individuals as somehow weaker than others is simply misguided."
Former Winn Army Community Hospital commander Col. Paul Cordts, following a change of command ceremony last Thursday, said in his opinion, condolence letters should be sent to the survivors of soldiers who commit suicide when deployed. Cordts said the Army’s medical command has recently focused on improving access to behavioral health and said the number of psychiatrists at Winn was "doubled" in recent years to help prevent suicide.
"That being said, it’s difficult to hire psychiatrists in particular," Cordts said. "And so we’re focusing right now on being sure we have enough psychiatrists. Psychiatrists are the ones who do the prescribing if a soldier has depression or post traumatic stress disorder."
Cordts said that along with ensuring soldiers have access to behavioral health, the Army has a new policy whereby soldiers are taught to assess the risky behavior of fellow soldiers and transmit the information up the chain of command.
"Our Army substance-abuse program (also) assesses the risk of soldiers, namely the risk of soldier suicide, of homicide," he added. "And in behavioral health we assess the risk of suicide or of homicide. We’re working hard now to marry up (these three) forms of risk assessment."
Soldiers and families in need of crisis assistance can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.