Alaska's army bases see glimmer of hope after 'horrifically high' suicide rates among soldiers

FAIRBANKS, Alaska – The 2021 wave of suicides that swept over Alaskan military bases has receded after commanders required troops to get counseling, the Pentagon added therapists and living conditions improved in America's "Last Frontier."

But the Pentagon wants to do more to improve soldiers' mental health. Senior defense officials, led by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, sought out troops, commanders and counselors during a recent visit as the Defense Department assesses what’s worked and what hasn’t in combatting despair.

Hicks’ tour came as the Pentagon sorts through dozens of recommendations from an independent commission on combatting suicide in the military. Proposed changes range from commonsense - getting more counselors - to the controversial - limiting troops' access to buying firearms.

The threat of suicide has long been a crisis for soldiers stationed in Alaska. Temperatures drop to 50 degrees below zero in the interior of the state, where Fort Wainwright sits on the edge of Fairbanks. Slivers of sunlight brighten skies for only a few hours in the depth of winter. Holing up at home or in the barracks can be a natural instinct, but that can lead to isolation and loneliness. Cabin fever is very real, soldiers say.

In the summer, the Land of the Midnight Sun isn't just a slogan. The sun shines late into the evening, diminishing only at dusk. Round-the-clock daylight disrupts sleep, leading to irritability - and worse.

The landscape itself even plays a factor. Alaska's vastness inspires awe: the state is two-and-half times the size of Texas; its 46,000 miles of shoreline are more than all the Lower 48 states combined; Denali's snow-capped peak towers over the interior at more than 20,000. Grizzlies, wolves, black bears and moose teem in the black spruce skirts on lower elevations.

Views of Denali National Park from George Parks highway (Alaska Route 3), February 19, 2022.

But there's a saying here — Alaksa can kill you. That's a fatalistic reference to wild animals and savage cold and vast wilderness where a cellphone won't help if you're lost. The saying also applies to suicide. In 2021, Alaska's suicide rate of 30.8 per 100,000 people ranked third in the nation behind Wyoming and Montana.

Three-year tours here, especially for troops from states far away and unaccustomed to the climate, can be especially tough. Soldiers from southern states have told USA TODAY of being unprepared for the cold and longing for trips home, but being unable to afford them. They have spoken frankly of loneliness and depression and alcohol abuse.

Progress made in fighting the 'horrifically high rates of military suicide'

“While we’ve made some progress in battling the horrifically high rates of military suicide in Alaska, there is still more work to be done,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaksa, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement to USA TODAY. “It's no secret that training and living in the Arctic can at times present challenges relative to other duty stations."

Among active-duty troops in all the services, suicide rates have climbed steadily upward from 10.1 per 100,000 in 2001. By 2020, the rate had soared to 28.1. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took note of the crisis and made suicide prevention a top priority. There were 338 suicide deaths among active duty troops in 2020, 328 in 2021 and 328 in 2022.

"Mental health is health, period," he said during a visit to Alaska in 2021.

A spike in suicides at Fort Wainwright – 11 deaths between January 2014 and March 2019 – startled officials and spurred the Army to seek solutions. A commission recommended more than $200 million in spending to improve barracks and build sprawling garages to shelter soldiers maintaining vehicles. Yet suicides continued – eight deaths in 2019, seven in 2020.

Then the bottom dropped out.

Suicide among soldiers posted to Alaska peaked at 17 in 2021. After a USA TODAY investigation showed soldiers in despair had experienced long waits for help, the Army sent dozens of mental health experts to the state. Six soldiers died by suicide in 2022, and there has been one suspected suicide in 2023.

Waiting times for soldiers seeking specialized mental health counseling plummeted from 28 days to single digits.

Hicks told USA TODAY that there is a correlation between better access to counseling and the decrease in suicides. “The challenge we have everywhere is being able to show cause and effect."

Hicks, in briefings with commanders and tours of three bases, said suicide prevention efforts have also focused on reducing the stigma of seeking help, identifying troops who thrive in wintry climates and improving living conditions.

'Wellness checks' arrive on the scene

Army Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of the newly-formed 11th Airborne Division in Alaska, has championed Mission 100. Begun in 2022, the program compels soldiers to meet annually with a family life counselor. Eifler was first in line.

The Army's "wellness check" with a licensed counselor lasts from 30 minutes to an hour. Counselors can identify issues like financial or relationship issues before they fester and erupt into mental health crises. That might mean finding a grant for the young soldier living on her own for the first time, unable to meet utility bills that can reach $1,000 per month during the frigid winter months.

When the program started, the Army was 22 counselors short of the 50 counselors needed for Alaska, according to a senior defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Now there are 50 counselors, and the Army wants nine more. Addressing soldiers' issues before they metastasize into mental health problems that require intervention may be reducing the demand for appointments with psychologists and psychiatrists, the official said.

The Air Force has a similar program called True North in which counselors and chaplains are "embedded" in units.

Talking to a counselor each week, Senior Airman Coralys Muriel Vargas said, "absolutely helps." It's not for personal problems, she said, but more "venting in general."

The 27-year-old vehicle maintainer from Puerto Rico said Alaska was "nowhere near my list" of destinations when she joined the Air Force.

Living in Anchorage hasn't been easy. "The cold gets in your bones and stays there," she said. COVID-19 meant isolation at times from her peers. But nearing the end of her three-year tour, she's planning on staying for another. She's begun to snowboard and appreciates being outdoors.

"It's called layers," she said, laughing. "I wear a million of them."

Mission 100 and True North are programs the Pentagon may look to expand to other bases and services if data show that they're as successful as they appear, the official said.

The surge of mental health professionals has helped stem the crisis in Alaska, according to an Army officer serving here who has followed the issue closely but was not authorized to speak publicly. He worries, though, that many soldiers in Alaska with serious mental health issues sign up for counseling but don't show up for their appointments. His fear is that the decrease in suicide is temporary.

Snow covers the parking lot of The Spur, a popular bar among soldiers stationed at Fort Wainwright, February 17, 2022.

Removing stigma and improving living conditions

Sullivan, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and former Rep. Jackie Speier amended the National Defense Authorization Act last year to fund initiatives to what Sullivan called the "scourge of suicide" among troops posted to Alaska. He'll continue advocating to improve living conditions.

“First, it is essential that we remove the stigma of seeking mental health treatment," Sullivan said. "Second, we need to ensure there are an adequate number of providers so service members receive care promptly. Lastly, as the military presence in Alaska expands, there needs to be adequate year-round infrastructure for a service member and their family that ensures healthy living conditions such as housing, gyms, indoor playgrounds and gathering places, as well as transportation options for those without vehicles."

Officials at the bases showed Hicks aging barracks and understaffed childcare centers where more funding, they said, would ease stress on troops and their families by improving the quality of their lives in Alaska. Hicks walked through an older barracks with communal bathrooms at Fort Wainwright that had been scrubbed to a shine and was redolent of Pine-Sol.

A recent barracks replacement at the base cost $51 million. Finding soldiers who want to serve in Alaska has proven to be an inexpensive way to build a force that enjoys living in the state. About 1,200 soldiers who have listed Alaska as their top destination choice serve in the state under a program begun a few years ago, according to John Pennell, an Army spokesman. Those who love to hike, fish, hunt and ski tend to thrive in the state, he said.

Just before 6:30am at -25 degrees, soldier's prepare to go cross country skiing as part of their morning required physical training Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, February 17, 2022.

Last year, the Army reactivated the 11th Airborne Division in Alaska and designated its soldiers to be arctic warfare specialists. Previously, soldiers assigned to the state had trained in snow and cold but often found themselves deployed to deserts in the Middle East. The newly formed division, which has its origins in World War II, has given soldiers a sense of mission and identity, Pennell said.

Beyond Alaska, to help troops at at all bases, recommendations will soon be forwarded to Defense secretary Austin based on the findings of the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Commission. Congress directed the Pentgon to create the commission over concerns about suicide among troops in Alaska and elsewhere. Commissioners recommended 127 actions, and ranked them by priority.

The recommendations fall into three categories: enhancing access to behavioral health care, improving quality of troops' lives and limiting access to the "lethal means" used in suicides. Streamlining the hiring of counselors and paying them more, along with quality-of-life improvements like access to childcare, will be relatively straightforward.

Firearm restrictions deemed urgent

Among the most urgent recommendations, labeled "necessary" or "must," have to do with restricting access to firearms. Defense officials acknowledge that they could be controversial given Second Amendment concerns.

One calls for a seven-day waiting period for any firearm purchased at a Defense Department store. Another would raise the minimum age to 25 for buying firearms or ammunition. Safer storage options are also recommended.

Carey Harris Stickford said she believes her daughter would be alive today if the waiting period had been in place at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage two years ago.

Private 1st Class Kaylie Harris, then 21, had endured months of turmoil after alleging that a fellow service member had raped her. She'd had suicidal thoughts, was under orders not to have a personal firearm and had received counseling. After another encounter with the man, despite a protective order meant to keep them apart, Harris spiraled deeper.

Carey Harris' daughter Kaylie was an Army MP stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. She alleged that she was raped by an airman in January shortly after she came out on social media. Her family says the rape was a hate crime directed at Kaylie because she was lesbian. She printed a suicide note May 2 and was found that day with a gunshot wound to her head.

The order to keep her from buying a gun had lapsed. She went to the base exchange and bought a handgun. Hours later, she was found dead by suicide. She'd been a military police officer for less than a year.

"Instead of going to buy a gun so quickly due to her triggered emotional state, seven days would have given her time to calm down and think through the situation better," her mother said. "If that grace period was in place two years ago I may still have my soldier today!"

Two thirds of suicide attempts among active duty troops involve guns, according to the commission's report. More than 90% of the attempts with guns are fatal. Young, enlisted men are most at risk.

"Several lines of evidence suggest that limiting or reducing firearm availability could dramatically reduce the military’s suicide rate," the report said. "For example, a simple policy change requiring Israeli military personnel to store their military-issued weapons in armories over the weekend led to a 40% reduction in the Israeli military’s suicide rate."

Limiting access to guns and medicines used in overdoses could provide time for troops in crisis time to reconsider a suicide attempt, Hicks said.

"It could be medicine, it could be firearms, in times of crisis, just creating that space and opportunity," she said.

The daughter of a Navy submarine officer, Hicks said she understands the challenges military families face.

"We have the sacred obligation to take care of our people who are voluntarily taking the oath of office to defend our nation," Hicks said. "And we're going stay focused on that goal."

More:Just 10 years ago, women were banned from combat. Now, they're on the front lines, climbing the ranks.

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.