WASHINGTON — Troubled about rising suicide rates in the military’s reserve components, the top Army Reserve officer said yesterday he’d like recruiters to start identifying not only whether potential recruits qualify for military service, but also whether they’re joining for the right reasons.
Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast that he has deep concerns about the rising incidence of suicide within the ranks. In 2009, the Army Reserve suffered 35 suicides, and in 2010, that number rose to 50.
Suicide rates increased in the Army National Guard as well, although they dropped slightly among active-duty soldiers, from 162 in 2009 to 156 last year, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli reported last month.
“Frankly, we are still trying to understand what is going on with the suicide issues,” Stultz told reporters yesterday.
One challenge, he said, is that most of the suicides within both the Army Reserve and Army National Guard occur when the soldier is in civilian, rather than military status. And contrary to what one might expect, he added, most of the reserve-component soldiers who took their own lives had never deployed and were not about to deploy. In fact, he said, some had not yet even attended basic training or started drilling with their reserve units.
Of those who committed suicide, Stultz said, contributing factors typically mirrored those among civilians who took their lives, including failed relationships, job losses and economic hardship.
“So I think the challenge for us, in our suicide prevention, and what I have been telling my commanders is, ‘If we are really going to have an impact on reducing the rate of suicide in the Army Reserve, we have to get inside the soldier’s head in his civilian life -– not in his military life,” Stultz said.
That, he said, starts the minute a potential Army Reserve candidate walks into a recruiter’s office.
“I think recruiters need to think more about being a counselor than a traditional recruiter,” Stultz said. It’s great for recruiters to tick off disqualifiers that would make a candidate ineligible to join the military — legal convictions, drug issues, lack of a high school diploma, among them -– the general said.
“But I think our recruiters need to start thinking about saying, ‘Why?’ ” when a potential recruit expresses interest in joining the military, he added. “Why do you want to join the Army Reserve? What’s going on in your head that you want to join the Army Reserve?”
Older candidates or those who appear to be joining the Army Reserve to escape problems or make money should send up a red flag, he said. The Army Reserve can’t solve their problems, Stultz said, and those soldiers ultimately will end up being problems for the Army Reserve.
In cases where recruiters don’t identify potential problems, Stultz said, it’s up to the Army reservist’s unit to do so, as quickly as possible after a new soldier joins its formation.
“When that soldier shows up for his drill, somebody needs to sit down with him and say, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ ” he said. In doing so, he told the group, unit leaders can help to identify marriage, relationship or career problems that could escalate over time.
As part of its suicide prevention program, the Army Reserve has joined the active Army in working to take the stigma out of seeking mental health care. In addition, Stultz said, the Army Reserve is putting increased emphasis on “battle buddies” who check on each other and steer troubled soldiers to professional help.
But because Army reservists spend the vast majority of their time away from their units, Stultz called family members key to the Army Reserve’s suicide prevention efforts. “So part of our suicide prevention training has to include the family,” he said.
Concerned as he is about suicide within the Army Reserve, Stultz said, he believes it signals even greater problems for the United States as a whole. Although the military reports current suicide statistics, the latest national statistics on suicide date back to 2007, he noted.
“What concerns me is if we are a mirror of society, what is going on in society?” he asked. “Are we going to look back three years from now and say, ‘Holy cow, what was going on in our nation in 2010 that we really didn’t realize because we were so focused on the military?
“I think we need to focus on this as a nation, not just as a military,” he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)