FORT HUACHUCA — While Suicide Prevention Month has passed at Fort Huachuca, the issue of taking one’s own life, how to prevent that and how to look for the warning signs of desperation in a battle buddy are always front and center at the installation.
Suicide is an issue in the Army and other armed forces, military officials say. While suicides have risen steadily in the military over the last five years, leaders across the board have said that the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 exacerbated the situation with new restrictions and prohibitions placed upon those in uniform.
“Military life inherently can be stressful,” says Tanja Linton, an Army spokeswoman at Fort Huachuca. “Just the moving alone and the constant upheaval and change in military life is hard. You may think you’re prepared to deal with it, but then life throws something at you that can knock you off your feet.”
An article in the Associated Press last month stated that the number of U.S. military suicides jumped by 15% in 2020, “fueled by significant increases in the Army and Marine Corps that senior leaders called troubling.”
According to data released late last month by the Department of Defense, there were 580 suicides last year compared with 504 the prior year, the AP story shows. Of those, the number of suicides by Army National Guard troops jumped by about 35%, from 76 in 2019 to 103 last year, and the active duty Army saw a nearly 20% rise. Marine Corps suicides went up by more than 30%, from 47 to 6,; while the Marine Corps Reserves went from nine deaths to 10.
“The findings are troubling,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in the AP article. “Suicide rates among our service members and military families are still too high, and the trends are not going in the right direction.”
Officials at Fort Huachuca are trying to shift that direction.
In September there were several activities and events on post aimed at bringing awareness to the issue of suicide and how to help someone who believes they may have reached the end of their rope.
A constant theme at the installation is that it’s OK to reach out and ask for help.
Recently, a few of the behavioral experts at Fort Huachuca talked about what they see among the troops, their families and retirees, and how they’re hoping to stem the tide of suicides on post by making everyone aware of the resources that are available for anyone in need.
There have been suicides at Fort Huachuca, Linton said, but she could not get into specifics.
“We have had suicides on the installation,” Linton said. “Sadly, it is a problem in the Army. It’s a real everyday problem here.”
Joanne Prince, the suicide prevention program manager on post, said there usually are three common themes she sees when people are contemplating suicide — relationships, financial issues and legal situations.
There also are plenty of young, homesick soldiers who are experiencing being away from loved ones for the first time and find that separation overwhelming, Prince said.
James Helis, director of the Army Resilience Directorate, echoed what Prince said in a recent article that appeared in the Association of the United States Army, Voice for the Army— support for the soldier.
Helis said the majority of suicide deaths in the Army involve active-duty male soldiers in the rank of staff sergeant and below who are in combat arms MOSs (military occupation specialties) and have access to the privately owned weapons used in the majority of suicides.
“We’re trying to look at some sources, such as financial counseling, relationship counseling, parenting skills, substance abuse counseling, so that the challenges that are reaching a crisis point when a soldier dies by suicide are addressed early and taken care of before it turns into a crisis,” Helis said. “That’s true prevention of suicide. It’s looking at the problem holistically.”
The soldiers who die by suicide, Helis said, have “singularly or in combination” relationship problems, a work-related tangle or a legal issue involving the Uniform Code of Military Justice, financial troubles or behavioral health challenges.
One of the main stumbling blocks Prince and others are trying to help soldiers overcome is the stigma associated with asking for help or admitting that life is getting a bit crowded.
“We feel that we should be able to handle things on our own,” Prince said. “In our last survey, 77% of soldiers felt that they had to take care of issues themselves. That’s a big inclination in the Army — mission first.”
Prince said many soldiers are concerned if they ask for help, it could hurt their chances for advancement or hinder their security clearance. She said one of the programs at the installation addresses those concerns.
“Stigma is a big word — we tell them that they can get help, (and) it’s not going to be what you thought.”
Garrison Chaplain Lt. Col. Shay Worthy said that aside from having a chaplain available 24-7 for anyone in need, the installation also provides “a ministry of presence.”
“Every battalion unit has a chaplain,” Worthy said. “That means chaplains are where their soldiers are.”
He pointed to the recent vaccine rodeo on post at which soldiers who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 were required to get their shot. Chaplains were on hand to accompany and counsel troops who were apprehensive about getting the shot, Worthy said.
“We also do counseling,” Worthy said. “We also have on-call chaplains who you can call 24-7. We have that ministry of presence where chaplains are close to the soldiers.”
He also said chaplains — including himself — must keep the information they get from a soldier or a family member confidential.
“Sometimes people just want to get something off their chest,” Worthy said.
Prince and Worthy agreed that the mental health issues that can fuel thoughts of suicide in a person cross all age and gender lines. Military rank is meaningless if someone is thinking about ending it, Prince said.
“They can be age 6 to age 65,” Prince said. “People have assumptions that if someone is 6 or 7 they can’t kill themselves. People have assumptions that if someone is a command sergeant major, they can’t kill themselves because they have that command and all that respect.
“Nothing can be farther from the truth. Anybody at any time is capable of taking that action.”
Worthy said one of the themes on post during Suicide Prevention Month was “connectedness.”
“We see in the Army what we see in society,” Worthy said. “Our theme this month is connectedness. But how many points of connectedness do we have? We’ve all heard the saying ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ But which straw was it? It was the last straw.
“The point is, who is helping take those things that are on your back?”
Capt. Lisa Bailey, who is part of Behavioral Health Services at Raymond W. Bliss Army Health Center on post, said there are plenty of resources available for anyone who needs help.
“Once they get to me, or behavioral health, we do an intake and try to match them (the soldier) with a provider that will best match their personality. We deal with post traumatic stress, childhood stress and other treatments to get at the root of what that soldier or family member is experiencing. The behavioral health center also offers substance abuse and prevention programs.
“It really is a team effort all the way around.”
Any soldier who feels that life is starting to get shaky, has several options on how and where to seek help, Prince, Worthy and Bailey said.
They can go to their drill sergeant — who Prince said have been trained extensively on how to handle a cry for help from a soldier — and get a referral to speak to someone on post, or they can go to one of the chaplains on the installation, or contact an on-call chaplain.
Soldiers may also call the Veteran Crisis or Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255 and press 1. The service is available 24-7 and is open to all active military, retired military, all National Guard and reserve and their family and friends.
Additionally, behavioral health services at RWBAHC is open during duty hours, Prince said. Other resources include Military ONESource, 800-342-9647.
Prince emphasized there are resources everywhere on Fort Huachuca.
“The challenge is getting past the fear of asking for help,” she said. “If somebody says something, you have to say something. That’s taking care of your battle buddy. You’re not getting someone in trouble, you’re saving someone’s life.”