Pentagon Orders New Suicide Panel to Look at Alaska and 5 Other Bases

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The Pentagon has ordered a new independent commission to review suicides at three Alaska bases where a spike in the number of troops who have taken their lives has alarmed military leaders.

The commission will also look into suicides at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and Camp Humphreys, South Korea, the largest overseas U.S. military base, as well as the North Carolina National Guard and two other facilities, according to a memo sent out by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday.

Congress mandated a panel outside of the military leadership to investigate the ongoing problem of suicide as part of the annual defense authorization bill. Austin said he expected commission members, who have not yet been chosen, to begin visiting the bases by August and report back to lawmakers in the first months of 2023 on what might be done to reduce the deaths.

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"We want them to be able to be brutally honest with us about what they're finding," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.

Austin visited Fairbanks, Alaska, last year and spoke with local mental health experts about the causes of suicide there. At least 11 soldiers have died by suicide over the past year, and six cases are still under investigation -- and the numbers have been climbing since 2018.

In 2020, 580 service members committed suicide, which includes the National Guard and reserves, according to the Pentagon. More recent data has not yet been released.

Austin "has seen enough based on the 2020 data and then the anecdotal reporting that's been coming in throughout the course of 2021," Kirby said. "He's seen enough to know that we've got to do something different, that we've got to try to take additional and more creative action here."

Military leaders in Alaska have been pressing the Pentagon for more mental health funding, upgrading gym facilities, allowing early release for soldiers and have even tried giving out Vitamin D, which can be deficient among people who live in colder climates with less daily sunlight.

The new commission will investigate the suicides in Alaska at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright.

It will have at least five members, who will likely have expertise in mental health but who are not currently in the military or working at the Defense Department. They will be named within the next two months by Gil Cisneros, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The list of initial bases that will be visited could expand. It now also already includes Naval Air Station North Island, California, and Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

The causes of suicide in Alaska -- and elsewhere in the military -- and how to reduce numbers has remained elusive. Overall in the military, deaths by suicide increased dramatically in the fourth quarter of 2020. The military reported 156 deaths, which was a 25% increase from the 125 deaths in the last quarter of 2019.

Kirby called it a very complex problem, and that Austin has recently focused on reducing the remaining stigma around mental health issues and gun safety as key aspects of preventing suicide.

"There is a significant amount of suicides in the military that are gunshot related, personal firearms, and one of the things that he wants to do is work with commanders on storage of firearms in the home or on base and make sure we've got that well in hand," Kirby said.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

Related: Alaska Army Leaders Scramble for Help After Spike in Suicides