WASHINGTON, July 29, 2010 — An Army task force created to reduce the increasing rate of soldier suicides released more than 250 recommendations, including establishing health promotion councils at each installation, expanding behavioral health screenings, and recruiting additional behavioral health counselors.
Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff and head of the task force, explained that Army units have worked rigorously over the past decade to prepare for and serve in combat. But leaders began to overlook signals and behaviors, including misconduct, which may have indicated an increased risk of suicide for some soldiers, the general told reporters at a Pentagon news conference today.
“You have to understand that we prioritized … to fight our nation’s wars and to be ready and tactically sound to go and do the mission we were given by the country,” he said. “[Commanders] rightly prioritized the No. 1 thing that they were going to do is to prepare their soldiers to go into harm’s way.
“Now, as we come back and we start to see [time at home between deployments] increase — or at least we forecast it’s going to increase — it’s time for the Army to take a hard look at itself,” he continued. “What are those things that came lower on our priority list that we need to re-institute, reinforce, and start doing to get at this problem?”
The health promotion, risk reduction and suicide prevention report outlines the Army’s miscues, identifies indicators of suicide and, more importantly, offers more than 250 recommendations to reduce the suicide risk.
“[The report] identifies indicators of high-risk behaviors that are reflective of the stress and strain on the force after almost a decade of persistent conflict,” the general said. “It also identifies gaps in policies [and] procedures pertaining to the surveillance and detection and mitigation of high-risk suicidal behavior.”
The rate of soldier suicides has risen in each of the past five years. In fiscal 2009, 160 soldiers took their own lives, while there more than 1,700 attempts. Meanwhile, soldiers without deployment experience or with one deployment account for 79 percent of Army suicides.
Newer soldiers are at a higher risk, the general said.
“The most difficult year to be in the Army is the first year,” Chiarelli said. “Sixty percent of suicides occur in first-term soldiers.”
The Army’s top priority is defending the nation, but it needs to give individual soldier issues more attention, Chiarelli said, citing stressors outside of deployments, such as family and financial issues and drug abuse. Army officials now are focusing more efforts on building resilience in soldiers, Chiarelli said, and therefore, reducing suicide calls for a change in the Army’s culture.
“If young leaders are doing anything down there today, they ought to be focusing their sponsorship programs on young soldiers coming into the unit — that soldier that just comes out of basic [training] who’s trying to make friends, who is new to the unit,” the general said. “These are the kinds of things and lessons that you draw from this data that we believe are going to be absolutely essential for us getting a handle on this.”
Over the past year, the Army has launched the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program and the Master Resilience Trainer Course. Both initiatives are geared to teaching soldiers at the lowest levels to handle stress. The programs also give soldiers an outlet to seek help.
Also, Chiarelli noted, the Army has added 10 hours of resilience training in its basic training curriculum for new recruits.
Evidence-based training, the general said, shows that a high rate of resilience can be taught.
“Through this data,” he added, “we have focused our effort with our master resilience trainers at basic training. That’s the kind of thing that comes out of data like this, and it allows us to focus our efforts to make sure that we’re expending resources where we need to expend resources, and getting a very valuable resource to us, the master resilience trainer, to the place that he needs to be.
“If you have a choice,” he continued, “it’s a great place to have him — in basic training, beginning the process of making soldiers more resilient before they go to their first unit.”
The Army must continue such efforts and focus more on the health and well-being of the entire force, including family members, Chiarelli said.
The task force recommendations include tightening enlistment standards, establishing health promotion councils at each installation, expanding behavioral health screenings, and recruiting additional behavioral health counselors. The Army also created 72 additional positions for chaplains, according to the task force’s report.
Chiarelli also noted that the number of recruiting waivers in 2009 is down almost 50 percent from 2007. Such waivers allow recruits with certain medical conditions and minor criminal offenses to enlist, helping the Army to meet recruiting goals. Some of these soldiers, Chiarelli acknowledged, are considered a higher risk for suicide than others, but he noted that the number of soldiers separated from the Army for disciplinary reasons also is down over the past 12 years.
The general said the report helps leaders understand how the Army has changed after a decade of war. Some of these leaders, he said, have known nothing but the current high operations tempo. The Army is paying more attention to soldiers who joined shortly on, or around, Sept. 11, 2001, he added.
Many of these soldiers now are senior leaders responsible for the training and well-being of junior troops and don’t know the military that existed before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he explained.
“You need to understand that we’ve got platoon sergeants — E‑7s in the United States Army today — who joined the Army after Sept. 11, 2001,” he said. “Their life has been constantly ‘reset, train, ready, deploy, and begin that process all over again.’ We have families [for whom] that’s all they’ve ever experienced.”
The Army hopes to build on the data it has gathered and it will continue to hone in the information necessary to reduce the suicide rate, Chiarelli said. It’s a difficult undertaking, but must be done, he added.
Army leaders now understand that the health of the force is a priority, he said.
“I think our commanders are understanding that now,” he said. “As we get deeper and deeper in this, … the realization has come.”
The report’s recommendations are not yet Army policy. The report now must go through a staffing process, where top leaders will make further determinations, Chiarelli said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)