Battaglia: Reducing Suicides a Top Priority

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)

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