Four soldiers appear to have died by suicide in Alaska in the last month, a grim figure as Army planners and lawmakers have raced to surge mental health resources to remote bases there, according to internal service correspondence reviewed by Military.com.
The sudden spike in deaths is still under investigation after two additional Alaska soldiers were confirmed to have died by suicide earlier this year. The news of six suicides across the 11th Airborne Division comes after what appeared to be a steep drop in suicides last year, following a 2020 that saw 17 soldiers take their own lives in Alaska.
“Many of you already know that we lost four Arctic Angels in the past 30 days to the enemy of despair,” Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler and Command Sgt. Maj. Vern Daley wrote Friday in a joint letter to the 11th Airborne Division. “We can never replace their loss nor fill the void they left behind. After a significant reduction from last year, these recent losses are a heart-breaking reminder that this battle is not over.”
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Key leaders in the region have taken dramatic steps, including mandatory mental health screenings, in a bid to combat the crisis. But as service planners increasingly pay attention to mental health struggles in the force, issues with self-harm continue.
The four recent deaths, which are under investigation, include three junior enlisted troops and a midlevel noncommissioned officer, according to multiple soldiers with direct knowledge of the situation. Military.com is withholding some of the specifics on the deaths, to include the methods of suicide.
The region offers some of the most austere garrison life in the service. In March, Military.com spent more than a week with troops in Alaska, embedded with paratroopers, interviewing key leaders and touring training areas. Soldiers described bases with relatively few resources and the specter of a harsh climate, which can dip below -50 degrees Fahrenheit at remote locations and quickly take a toll on soldiers’ mental health.
It is unclear whether the spike in deaths is attributable to any particular stressor on troops in the region. Deaths by suicide can often happen in clusters, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through so-called “suicide contagion,” a series of events in which being exposed to suicide or suicidal behaviors through a family, peer group or media reports can increase the risk of suicide.
Some soldiers interviewed by Military.com blame a confluence of issues, including abrasive leadership and the high-pace training schedule. Just this year, Alaska conducted a massive monthlong training exercise meant to stress test the Army’s Arctic capabilities. That event is expected to be repeated early next year. The 11th Airborne Division has also done training missions in Norway and Thailand and conducted expert badge tests, among other field training exercises.
“They were my friend, and things have been very bad for [the unit],” one soldier told Military.com on the condition of anonymity, referencing one of the suicides. “It was shocking, and we quickly went back to training. There wasn’t a lot of mourning time.”
Multiple rank-and-file soldiers and leaders told Military.com in March that soldiers seeking behavioral health care would sometimes have to wait up to a month for an appointment. In other cases, soldiers explained there’s still a stigma behind seeking behavioral health services, out of concerns for losing their jobs, which often include handling weapons. Even recreation centers and gyms are routinely understaffed, some of that being attributed to the difficulty of recruiting workers.
The following month, Alaska Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, along with Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., penned a letter to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth outlining their quality-of-life concerns for Alaska-based soldiers.
Suicides in the Army are not limited to Alaska, and early 2022 data shows the service overall is seeing a dip in deaths, including at Alaska bases such as Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Eifler and other leaders in the 11th Airborne Division have told Military.com that Alaska is not for everyone, given the extreme conditions, and that they are slowly trying to make the region a volunteer-dominant assignment. That pitch appears to be working: Alaska is the top choice among new recruits who elected to choose their first duty station.
He has issued a slew of new policies, including extra days off for units that remain DUI- and drug-free for 90 days. Soldiers can also earn extra leave, by achieving tasks such as graduating Ranger School or visiting a glacier.
Eifler has also expanded behavioral health options, spurring mandatory mental health checks for his formations. Counselors saw more than 10,000 soldiers this year, according to a division spokesperson. Of those, 1,000 troops were forwarded for additional sessions for themselves or couple’s counseling. However, mandatory checks run the risk of clogging up appointment times for other soldiers, given the persistent staffing issues the Army experiences in the state.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston has made mental health care one of the key components of his tenure, often advocating for leaders to tackle the issue through quality-of-life improvements. He says behavioral health is only one resource, warning that some leaders wrongly see a soldier seeking counseling as the problem being solved.
“It’s OK to seek help if you need help,” Grinston said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., in October. “But I do want to caution you that that is not the panacea for all your problems. … I think when we use all the resources that we have, I think we’re all going to be in a better mental state. We can’t just use only one resource.”
Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 988 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
— Steve Beynon can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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