WASHINGTON – The Army is rushing more than 40 mental health counselors and chaplains to Alaska in coming weeks to address its suicide crisis among soldiers there.
The move, announced by Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, follows a USA TODAY investigation that found soldiers in Alaska who had sought help for suicidal thoughts often had to wait weeks to see behavioral health counselors.
In 2021, 17 soldiers died by confirmed or suspected suicide, more than the two previous years combined.
The Army plans to send five behavioral health counselors, 17 family life counselors and 19 chaplains to meet the urgent demand among soldiers for help with mental health, Wormuth told the House Armed Services Committee.
The Army will also seek to fill permanent behavioral health positions over the next year. In the meantime, the chaplains, trained in behavioral health, will serve monthslong rotations over the next three years to help fill gaps, according to an Army official familiar with the effort but not authorized to speak publicly.
There are about 11,000 soldiers posted to Alaska, most of them at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and Fort Wainwright in the frigid interior. Soldiers and commanders said the long and dark winters, isolation and the remote location, far from family and friends, are some of the stresses that have contributed to the suicide crisis.
Suicide devastates more than the service member and their family. It reverberates among the soldier's peers, eroding morale and readiness, military leaders and lawmakers say.
After a smaller spike in suicides in 2019, particularly at Wainwright, the Army spent more than $200 million to improve living and working conditions there. Sprawling garages sprang up to allow soldiers to service combat vehicles shielded from temperatures that can plummet to 40 degrees below zero. New and renovated barracks replaced cramped, dark living spaces.
Yet the mental health crisis among soldiers in Alaska deepened. In January, USA TODAY reported that eight soldiers had died by suspected suicide over a four-month period. The news captured the attention of senior Pentagon officials and members of Congress, who held hearings and demanded better access to behavioral health counselors for soldiers in crisis.
The Pentagon, at the direction of Congress, will conduct an independent review of suicide among troops, particularly those posted to remote bases. Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will be among the installations studied. Of particular interest will be the disparity in suicide between soldiers and Air Force personnel stationed in Alaska. In 2021, just one of the 10,000 airmen posted to Alaska died by suicide, according to the Air Force.
Broken relationships and financial problems are factors contributing to suicide in the Army, Gen. James McConville, the Army's chief of staff, told Congress. Alaska's harsh climate, long winter days and round-the-clock sun in summer can also add stress. Living in Fairbanks, seven hours by icy road to Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, adds a layer of isolation that one soldier likened to "suffocation."
Alaska had the second highest suicide rate in the United States behind Wyoming in 2020, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the active duty military, the suicide rate increased from 20.3 per 100,000 troops in 2015 to 28.7 per 100,000 troops in 2020, according to the Pentagon.
The military's suicide rate is similar to that of the general U.S. population. Troops, however, are subject to far greater oversight than civilians, and the Pentagon expects a lower rate, Defense officials have said.
The Army has also begun seeking volunteers for service in Alaska, aiming to bring soldiers who can enjoy its vast wilderness to the state. Earlier this month, the Army announced a plan to establish a new command based in Alaska, the 11 Airborne Division. Doing so, Wormuth told Congress, will give soldiers there a common identity.
Right now the two brigades there are part of the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii.
Also on Tuesday, the Pentagon announced the membership of the independent suicide review commission. The panel will be chaired by Gayle Iwamasa, an expert in mental health from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Three of the nine bases the commission is scheduled to visit are in Alaska.
Experts in sexual assault and suicide, substance abuse and epidemiology make up the rest of the commission, according to the Pentagon. It will be advised by consultants familiar with the military. The commission is scheduled to visit Alaska in October.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Army rushes counselors to Alaska amid suicide crisis