General: Suicide Prevention Begins With Recruiters, Supervisors

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)

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