WASHINGTON – The Army's mental health emergency in Alaska spiked in 2021 with 17 suspected suicide deaths – more suicides than in the previous two years combined.
The crisis has deepened in recent months: eight soldiers have died in cases of suspected suicide since October, according to figures released by the Army to USA TODAY. The deaths have rattled soldiers there and seized the attention of the Pentagon's top civilian and military leadership as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"The Army must redouble our efforts to prevent suicide in our ranks and work to institutionalize prevention of harmful behaviors as an Army capability," Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in a statement to USA TODAY. "We cannot have a healthy and ready Army unless we take care of our soldiers' mental health. In Alaska – and across the Army – leaders need to continue making clear that there is no stigma associated with taking care of yourself and your family. Mental health is tied to readiness and Army leaders must strive to connect our soldiers with the necessary resources for their well being."
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The Army is rushing resources and focusing attention on Alaska during the dark, frigid winter to prevent more suicides. The issue has defied conventional solutions, including more than $200 million spent in recent years to improve working conditions and barracks for soldiers in a far-away state where temperatures can drop to 60 degrees below zero and endless summer days disrupt sleep.
The Army's suicide deaths in Alaska, which have been devastating for families, also have deeply affected soldiers serving there. Soldiers cite horrific encounters and complain of long waits to see behavioral health counselors.
The 17 confirmed and suspected suicides – the Army classifies deaths as suicide after completing its investigation – eclipse the seven cases in 2020 and eight in 2019. Figures released by the Army to Congress, and obtained by USA TODAY, show that Alaska had averaged about six suicide deaths a year from 2016 to 2020.
Among those who died by suicide in 2020 and 2021, almost all were men, according to the data. Two-thirds were white and about half were married and ages 21 to 25. Gunshot wounds were the primary cause of death.
“I am laser-focused on this issue," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the personnel subcommittee for Armed Services Committee. "And the numbers have dramatically increased even after more funding for services and facilities has been provided."
Speier placed a provision to establish an independent review commission to study suicide in Alaska and at other remote posts in the current National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden. The panel would be similar to the group that investigated problems at Fort Hood surrounding the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, Speier said. She also plans to hold hearings on suicide among troops based in Alaska.
"The Government Accountability Office is also reviewing the military’s suicide prevention and response programs in Alaska, and I will ensure its recommendations are heard and implemented," Speier said. "If more resources are needed, we will provide those. If policy changes are required to prevent suicide, I will include those in the next NDAA. We must act now.”
Suicide crisis is not new for Alaska
For all troops, not just those in Alaska, suicide rates are comparable with those of the civilian population, according to the Pentagon's latest report. For the 11,500 soldiers in U.S. Army Alaska, most of them at Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, the suicide rate for 2017 to 2021 was 36.8 per 100,000 people compared with the Army’s five-year average rate of 31.8 suicides per 100,000 people. Alaska had the second-highest suicide rate in the nation in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Army's suicide crisis in Alaska has been persistent. The Army commissioned a study of life at Fort Wainwright after a smaller cluster of suicides had occurred. From January 2014 to March 2019, there were 11 suicides among soldiers at Fort Wainwright. The study included a survey of 4,000 soldiers there found that 10.8% had expressed ideas about suicide.
In recent weeks, senior Army officers and civilian officials have visited bases in Alaska to assess the problem and programs to help soldiers who are struggling with their mental health. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Alaska last summer and spoke of the need to remove the stigma of seeking help for mental health problems.
Several soldiers who have served in Alaska said failed relationships, harsh weather, the high tempo of training and deployment, alcohol and other substance abuse, and the easy availability of firearms have contributed to the crisis. Three soldiers complained of long wait times, sometimes weeks, to see behavioral health counselors.
The soldiers spoke to USA TODAY on condition of anonymity because they said they feared damage to their careers.
At Fort Wainwright, in the frigid interior of Alaska at Fairbanks, soldiers have sought several times to intervene after learning a colleague was in despair, one soldier said. In one recent case, a solider died by suicide with a firearm as his friends arrived. Other soldiers have been first to discover the body of a colleague, the solider said. The suicides have had a tremendous effect on soldiers, he said.
How the Army combats suicide in Alaska
In Alaska, several initiatives have been launched to combat suicide in the past year, said Col. Christopher Ward, chief of staff for U.S. Army Alaska.
"The Army made investments in programs, services and facilities such as a new child development center, a new barracks, and a new community activity center at Fort Wainwright," Ward said.
The Army is beginning a program called Arctic Warrior Wellness Checks, which are 30-minute sessions for each solider to meet annually with a counselor, Ward said. To staff the program, Army officials in Alaska have requested a "surge" of counselors for the spring.
"These counseling sessions are intended to drive down any perceived stigma or misconception that receiving behavior-health care will hurt a career," Ward said. "Additionally, it will bring the resource to the soldier rather than hoping soldiers exercise their own initiative to seek counseling."
The Army also has begun screening recruits for their interest and willingness to serve in Alaska. Starting this year, recruits are being given the option to choose serving there. Hundreds have volunteered.
"Alaska is not for everyone, so we are conducting a concerted effort to help soldiers and families who want to live and stay in Alaska," Ward said. "Having more people who want to be in Alaska, and who thrive in that environment, will reduce the number of soldiers who may not do well there."
The Army says long wait times for soldiers and their families to see counselors are uncommon. Over the past 60 days, soldiers and their families averaged wait times of three to 14 days for new appointments, according to Col. Eli Lozano, commander of U.S. Army Medical Activity – Alaska. The wait times for these and other "non-emergent" behavioral health care concerns have been within the standard-of-care timeline of 28 days.
If you are a service member or veteran in crisis or having thoughts of suicide (or you know someone who is), call the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 or text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Army's 17 suicides in Alaska in 2021 eclipse last two years combined