WASHINGTON – Six soldiers stationed in Alaska have died by apparent suicide in the first five months of the year, an alarming number of deaths after the Army poured more than $200 million into the state to combat the mental health crisis it identified in 2019, according to Army figures released to USA TODAY.
The 2021 suicide toll among the roughly 11,500 soldiers stationed there already has nearly matched last year when seven soldiers died by suicide while stationed with U.S. Army Alaska, whose principal posts are Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
While suicide rates among troops overall are comparable to the civilian population, the rate within the relatively small population of Alaska-based soldiers appears to be nearly four times the general U.S. rate.
Minus 60-degree cold, the high frequency of training and deployment and geographic and social isolation have been cited as key stresses in lives of soldiers stationed in Alaska. The relatively high cost of living, alcohol abuse, sleep disorders in the Land of Midnight Sun and its long, dark winters can contribute to mental health issues as well. Among the general population, Alaska had the second highest suicide rate in the nation in 2019, according to the CDC.
The Army identified those problems and more after responding to a cluster of 11 suicides among soldiers at Fort Wainwright from January 2014 and March 2019. A survey of 4,000 soldiers there found that 10.8% had expressed ideas about suicide, according to the 2019 report.
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"Soldiers identified isolation, stigma, limited resources, poor coping skills, alcohol use, and poor quality of life at (Fort Wainwright) as factors they perceived as contributing to suicidal behavior," the report said.
"Heartbreaking," said Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commanding general of U.S. Army Alaska. Andrysiak reviews the suicides with the soldiers' friends and their immediate supervisors. If soldiers who died by suicide lacked a sense of belonging or believed nobody cared about them, it's not evident among their peers, who are devastated, he said.
"That's not what you see in the room," Andrysiak said. "Those people are wrecked."
The survey also found that about one-third of the soldiers at Fort Wainwright had trouble sleeping. Sunlight ranges from four hours a day in December and as much as 21 hours a day in June. Soldiers expressed concern about access to nutritious, high-quality food, and one-third worried they didn't have enough money to buy it. A third surveyed said their leaders tolerated hazardous drinking while off duty.
A soldier who served in the First Stryker Brigade at Fort Wainwright described life on the post as harsh, the training and deployments disruptive to families. It is particularly difficult for young soldiers who may be away from home for the first time. It's expensive to travel to Fairbanks during normal times, and the COVID-19 pandemic virtually shut down the base, said the soldier who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Soldiers stationed there are keenly aware of the suicide crisis and most have been affected by it, he said.
Suicide 'not going in the right direction' for Army, nation
For the U.S., the overall age-adjusted suicide rate increased 35.2% from 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 14.2 per 100,000 in 2018, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. It declined to 13.9 per 100,000 in 2019.
For the U.S. military, the rate of suicide among active-duty troops was 25.9 per 100,000 troops in 2019, 24.9 per 100,000 in 2018, and 21.9 per 100,000 in 2017. The rate has showed a steady increase from 2014, when the rate was 18.5 per 100,000 service members. The Pentagon report noted that the numbers in recent years were comparable "but not going in the right direction." Suicides in the Army increased from 146 in 2019 to 173 in 2020.
For U.S. Army Alaska, there were eight suicides among soldiers in 2019, seven in 2020 and six apparent suicides so far in 2021.
Andrysiak, said that the six soldiers died by suicide in 2021, although investigations of their deaths continue.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Andrysiak had briefed her last month on the "alarming number."
"One suicide alone is too many," she said in a statement Thursday. "Tragically, we’ve seen an increase in suicides within the military community in 2020, including in Alaska. When I first heard that the armed forces saw a 20% increase in suicides last year alone, I asked my staff to double check that statistic, hoping that it was an error. Sadly, it’s the truth."
Unlike previous years, the soldiers who have died by suicide do not fit the profile of young, white men, Andrysiak said. They're no longer clustered Fort Wainwright. Three have died at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Two of the soldiers were women, two were Hispanic and one was Black.
"It has broken the mold of what you typically see in the demographics of how these things happen in the Army," Andrysiak said.
One of the soldiers was Kaylie Harris, who was promoted to the rank of specialist after her death by suicide in May. Harris' mother told USA TODAY that her daughter had reported being sexually assaulted in January, 10 days after she had come out as a lesbian to her unit. In the following months, Kaylie Harris had expressed ideas of suicide and received counseling. She died days after an encounter with her alleged attacker who, despite a no-contact order, had been assigned to the same building for a training exercise.
Suicide: No single cause, no single solution
In the 2019 report, Army officials prescribed a series of remedies ranging from blackout curtains in barracks to ensure better sleep, enhanced food service and bolstering the staff of mental health counselors. The Army built new facilities for soldiers to maintain their equipment in the winter, bought new gym equipment and made plans to build new living quarters. In all, the Army spent $214.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to build and improve infrastructure on the base to better the lives of soldiers.
Andrysiak cut back the hours that alcohol could be sold on base in Alaska.
The 2019 study at Fort Wainwright noted that "there is no single factor or set of factors that determine whether a Soldier will die by suicide. Likewise, there is no single strategy that eliminates suicide, despite hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of research on suicide prevention and treatment."
The Army has sought to alleviate the added stress being stationed in Alaska can bring by spending millions on quality-of-life efforts and enhanced access to counseling, Andrysiak said.
The soldier who had been stationed at Fort Wainwright said the Army seemed more focused on renovating and building facilities than ensuring it had enough counselors. It can take weeks for a soldier to get an appointment, he said.
For some, though, the stigma of seeking help for mental health problems still exists in the military, Andrysiak said. Moreover, soldiers often have mental health issues when they join the service, he said.
After the death of a soldier by suicide, the Army launches a series of investigations, Andrysiak said. A key contributing factor are challenges in their upbringing that the parents contributed to, he said. Families are offered details of the findings, which he said can be a "bitter pill."
Murkowski commended Andrysiak for his effort to improve living conditions on Alaskan bases and seeking solutions to the "heart-wrenching problem."
"We must continue to make advances in properly identifying illnesses such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorders as well as working to break the stigmas surrounding mental health to help ensure those in need get appropriate treatment and support," she said.
A new Arctic strategy
Since the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001, the Army has regularly deployed soldiers from Alaska to the wars in the Middle East. Andrysiak acknowledged the disconnect between living and training in arctic conditions and deploying and fighting in the desert.
The new arctic strategy will focus on developing forces to fight in the cold as the Pentagon and Army eye Russia and China. And troops will stay in Alaska, he said. Recruiters for the Army's expanding arctic force will focus their attention on northern states, recruits who like to ski or snowboard. Those who adapt to life in Alaska will be offered the chance to stay longer, he said.
New buildings and more counselors, however, can't replace the relationship between soldiers in distress and their immediate supervisor, Andrysiak said.
"The reality is lives will be saved daily, by junior leaders being engaged in soldiers' lives," he said. "So we're asking a 23-year-old sergeant to know your 18-year-old private and understand what's going on in their lives. And then do your best to get them to the help that they need."
Service members and veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide and those who know a service member or veteran in crisis can 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: Military suicides stand out in Alaska, where 6 have died in 5 months