WASHINGTON — Military leaders are committed to reducing suicides in the ranks, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan B. Battaglia, the Defense Department’s top enlisted leader, said here Dec. 9.
Battaglia, senior enlisted advisor to Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service reporters after the recent release of a report on military suicides by the Center for a New American Security.
The report concludes that suicide among service members and veterans challenges the health of America’s all-volunteer force. From 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of about one every 36 hours, according to the report. It also states that while only 1 percent of Americans have served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 18 veterans die by suicide each day.
“Whether it be [a suicide] every 80 minutes or one every 80 weeks, one is obviously one too many,” Battaglia said. “I’m committed to continuing and exhausting all efforts in order to reduce suicide across the entire total force.”
Military leaders in all the services are committed to reducing suicides, Battaglia said.
“With regards to education, engagement, intervention — when a service member is feeling down or even possibly falling down, [leaders] need to engage, and they are,” Battaglia noted. “When a service member or family member is struggling, they need to intervene. And they are. Suicide is a total-force issue, and we’re going to continue to work hard in order to make it a total-force solution.” Since 2000, the military has implemented several initiatives designed to identify those service members at risk for suicide, the sergeant major said.
“We enabled some … tracking methods, to help us better understand suicide; we built some resiliency programs into our system,” he said. “Total Force Fitness, for example, is a program that provides families an enriched factor of resiliency [and] builds toughness.”
Total Force Fitness, a series of best practices to help families build resilience, has gained momentum over the past few years and “has, will and can” help service members, veterans and families to build resilience, Battaglia said.
The sergeant major said commanders and front-line leaders up and down the chain of command must continue to educate and engage service members and family members struggling with weighty personal challenges.
“It’s important for that individual service member to know that there’s no problem so serious … that someone has to decide to take [their] life,” Battaglia said. “We can help solve the problem together.”
Convincing someone suffering from suicidal thoughts to seek help is “a big step,” he acknowledged, both within the military and across society as a whole.
“We have some of the best mental health providers and doctors that the country has to offer,” he added. “They work around-the-clock in providing care and compassion [and] treatment for service members and families.”
Leaders can help people gain the courage to take the first step toward seeking help, Battaglia noted.
“A lot of responsibility lies on the commander for establishing and maintaining a [positive command] climate, [but] all of that commander’s subordinate leaders share a similar responsibility … all in support of the mission and welfare of that organization,” he said.
Battaglia said one important point he wants to share with service members who are struggling with personal issues is that help always is “a fingertip away” — pushing the buttons on a phone or knocking on a door can be the first step to a better life.
“All of our troops know this — we care,” he said. “Our men and women have chosen to do what 99 percent of their societal peer group chose not to — and that’s to serve in uniform as valued members of our armed forces.”
DOD and the VA are also working to reach the veteran population to help those at risk, Battaglia said, while the growing number of American companies seeking to hire veterans can help former service members find stability.
“Sooner or later we’re all going to leave uniform,” he said. “Employment and a good source of income certainly are firm ways to establish a solid lifestyle.”
Veterans are still part of the total force, and “help for them, again, is only a fingertip away,” the sergeant major said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)