“We are alarmed by the suicide rates we’re seeing inside the Army National Guard,” Army Maj. Gen. Raymond W. Carpenter, the component’s acting director, told the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense in March 24 testimony.
Suicide confounds easy explanation, and deployment might not be the whole answer.
“Almost half of the suicides we’re experiencing are from soldiers who haven’t even deployed,” Carpenter said. “There’s more to this than just the mobilization and deployment piece.”
Senators and National Guard leaders discussed unemployment, financial distress, a challenging economy and reluctance to ask for help as contributing factors.
Army National Guard suicides increased 75 percent in 2009, according to Sen. Daniel Inouye, the committee chair. Carpenter said 24 suicides are currently being investigated for 2010, a slight increase over the 22 who had taken their own lives during the same period in 2009.
“Our deploying soldiers and airmen are facing challenges that none of us on this panel certainly ever did in our military careers,” said Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “The stresses, the strains, the financial difficulties, the times we live in, the stress on the family, the fact that we’ve had continuous rotations, obviously have created an environment where many of our young soldiers and airmen struggle to make ends meet.”
The Air National Guard leverages Army National Guard programs and adds its own initiatives, Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, the director of the Air National Guard, said. Those include existing wing family support coordinators and new behavioral health professionals.
“These individuals will be provided to the adjutants general to be placed within their states at his or her direction,” Wyatt explained.
The Guard is making the behavioral health professionals available to all servicemembers. “It’s not just exclusively a service provided to the National Guard,” Wyatt said. “It’s made available to all members of the military.”
The Air Guard also is working to assure programs at active duty bases and posts are available to reservists.
“Some of the returning National Guard members are not honest on their post-deployment health assessments, simply because they don’t want to be delayed going home,” Sen. Patty Murray noted.
Carpenter said the Army is reevaluating those assessments – the first time a study has been done on the Guard and Reserve process in almost three decades.
“The initiative that’s being considered at this point is for the soldier to be honest with whatever emotional or physical problems they might have, be allowed to go home and be with their families, and then allow them to return to get the necessary treatment,” Carpenter said.
“There’s more to this war than just crossing the berm for Baghdad,” he said. “The bottom line … is preparing people for situations that are almost overwhelming. … We’ve got to build a resiliency out there to be able to sustain those tough times and to be able to not look at suicide as a viable option.”
Army National Guard pieces of the solution include the active duty Army’s Soldier Fitness Program and a partnership with the Army Reserve in the Helmets to Hardhats program.
Individual states also have pioneered programs designed to reduce soldier and airman suicides, such as the Kansas National Guard’s Flash Forward and the Michigan National Guard’s Buddy to Buddy program.
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