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New approach as Army confronts rising suicide rate

Aug. 1, 2013 - 08:20PM   |  
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FORT CAMPBELL, KY. — Gen. John F. Campbell’s frustration with the Army’s suicide rate is unmistakable when he raises his voice and drops his head as he speaks about it. Despite the programs offered to soldiers, the number taking their own lives keeps rising, including 14 possible suicides in June.

For Campbell, the Army’s vice chief of staff, it’s a problem that seems at times almost impossible to solve.

“What’s the definition of success?” Campbell asked Friday at Fort Campbell, a sprawling military post on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line. “You have only one suicide? That’s still too many.”

In an effort to cut the suicide rate as soldiers return from combat in Afghanistan, the Army is rolling out the Ready and Resilient Campaign — a mission to coordinate and integrate myriad Army programs and services.

Campbell said the effort will consolidate multiple programs already offered with the hope of getting to soldiers who are having issues before they rise to the crisis level. It includes an assessment of a soldier’s fitness and exercises to strengthen the Army by increasing soldier resilience to bounce back from deployment and any issues related to duty.

As part of a national campaign, Campbell met with soldiers and families Thursday afternoon at the post where he commanded the 101st Airborne Division from 2009-2011. He visited Fort Drum earlier Thursday and will touch Fort Jackson in South Carolina on Friday. In a 30-minute briefing with reporters, Campbell said leaders must embrace the readiness program for it to work.

“They’ve got to know every single thing they can about their soldiers,” Campbell said. “We’re pulling out all the stops here.”

The idea of reaching out to soldiers early is a good one but it’s not something the Army has done well historically, said Kim Ruocco with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a group that helps families of military members who are killed in action or by suicide.

Ruocco, who spent Thursday at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo., said the military must overcome a perception among soldiers that reporting mental or emotional distress and seeking help is a bad move.

“There’s still a huge, huge fear of seeking help for fear it will end a military career,” Ruocco said.

The military had 350 suicides overall in 2012, up from 301 the year before. The 2012 figure is the highest number of suicides for the armed services. The Army had 183 suicides during that same period, up from 167 in 2011.

The anti-suicide initiative has its roots in an anti-stress program introduced in 2009 at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. It starts in basic training and continues through all levels of Army education for officers and enlisted men and women. That program includes discussions by trainees about dealing with emotional issues, watching out for their fellow soldiers and the stress of maintaining a military bearing.

Campbell said the military must identify where and when the suicides are happening — down to the day of the week and the state and region — then figure out the why.

A soldier hospitalized for an injury has an 80 percent higher chance of trying to commit suicide than one who hasn’t been hospitalized, Campbell said.

“We’ve got to learn from that,” Campbell said. “We’re going to put the resources toward it.”

Ruocco said the new program is on target, as is the goal of reaching soldiers early. It marks a change from prior military efforts, which generally intervened with soldiers only after a crisis arose.

Finding soldiers with the simple problems — a recent family or financial issue or despair about finding a post-military job — is key, Ruocco said.

“It’s something we’re not good at yet,” Ruocco said.

Campbell is hoping the military gets better at it and can help as many military members as possible before the last soldiers leave Afghanistan.

“We have a debt that doesn’t stop in December 2014,” Campbell said.

Associated Press reporter Susanne Schafer in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.

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