The following are crisis intervention resources available to Fort Stewart soldiers and their families:
• Military One Source: 1-800-342-9647
• Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
• Army G-1, Army Well Being Liaison Office: 1-800-833-6622
• Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline: 1-800-984-8523
• TRICARE/Value Option: 1-800-700-8646
• WINN Behavioral Health Clinic (family members): 767-1654
• WINN Soldier Resiliency Center (soldiers): 767-7301
Often the first step to treating a problem is admitting there is one.
“Suicide is a problem. We (the Army) have recognized this,” 3rd Infantry Division deputy commander general-rear Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips said. “It’s a problem of culture, of external circumstances and stressors.”
Fort Stewart/Hunter Army Airfield, like the rest of the Army, is taking additional steps to prevent soldier suicides. These latest efforts reflect a change in how the Army perceives mental health, Phillips said. The general said Army leaders are now trying to erase the stigma once attached to soldiers asking for help. These changes in attitude and recommended measures to prevent suicide and improve soldiers and their families’ general well being are outlined in a 350-page report released by the Army last week.
“For the past nine years the Army has focused on deployments,” the general said.
Now, the military is focusing on the individual soldier’s emotional health, Phillips said. As part of this new perception, service members are urged to return to “old fashioned leadership,” he said.
“If you don’t know your soldiers and your soldiers’ families, you can’t help,” Phillips said.
He said leaders, including him, are encouraged to “eat in the dining facilities, look soldiers in the eye, talk to them, see how they’re doing.”
In fiscal year 2009, 160 active duty soldiers committed suicide, according to the Army’s Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention Report. The 11 soldiers assigned to Fort Stewart who took their lives in 2009 are included in the Army’s tally, said Capt. Jessica Parker, chief of the Warrior Restoration Center on post. There have been two confirmed suicides at Fort Stewart this year, Parker added. She said about 1,700 soldiers from across the Army attempted suicide in 2009.
“A lot of the issues we see in our soldiers mirror the civilian sector,” Parker said.
The captain stressed not all suicides are related to combat experiences. About 79 percent of soldiers who committed suicide last year had never deployed or had only deployed once, she said.
Parker said this trend seems to stem from the Army’s large population of young adults, in their late teens and 20s, many of whom are ill equipped to cope with the stress of everyday life, compounded by the stress of serving in the military. Some of these troubled troops may also have a history of depression or substance abuse that they did not reveal when they enlisted, she said.
About 58 percent of the suicide deaths in 2009 were primarily attributed to relationship problems and work stress contributed to about 50 percent of the suicide deaths from 2005-2008, according to the Army’s report.
Post traumatic stress disorder and other medical issues also contributed to the Army’s suicide rates, Parker said.
“While on average only 9.1 percent of the suicide deaths between 2005 and 2009 have been diagnosed with PTSD, this percentage has steadily increased from 4.6 percent in 2005 to 14.1 percent in 2009,” the report read.
“The question is ‘Where do we go from here?’” Parker said.
Identifying soldiers who are at risk for suicide is the first step, she said.
Soldiers will be screened before they deploy or redeploy, and also when they are seen by their primary care providers for routine appointments, Parker said. This is a concerted effort to identify those at risk as early as possible, she said. Troops who have been identified as displaying at-risk symptoms, have a history of behavioral problems or are on psychotropic medications also will be tracked more intensely, Parker said.
Maj. Dan Grieser experienced the Army’s new attitude toward mental health first-hand. He went through in-processing last week when he arrived at Fort Stewart from Fort Carson, Colo. As part of his transition to a new post, he was told to see a mental health provider.
“We could have spoken for five minutes or up to an hour,” Grieser said. “She (the counselor) asked very specific questions. She asked if I was having any relationship problems and how I was feeling that day.”
These types of screenings will help the Army identify soldiers who may need mental health services, Phillips said.
“Everyone at some point or another may have experienced cloudy weather,” he said. “I have and I freely admit that.”
Editor’s note: This story is the first in a two-part series on the Army’s latest efforts to prevent suicide.