The Army’s top civilian leader said on a visit to Fort Wainwright Monday that the service is making progress on a suicide-prevention program that includes improving the quality of life for the post’s 4-thousand soldiers – and helping them forge stronger ties with their comrades.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy says he and the service’s top NCO came to Fort Wainwright to check on the readiness of soldiers to defend the homeland. And to check on the progress of a program intended to help troops cope with the hardships and isolation of their tour of duty here.
“We did a lot of listening, and we learned a lot,” McCarthy said. “And as we go back home at the end of the week, we’ll be armed with a lot more information from some candid conversations here with leaders on the ground.”
Many of those conversations were about the high rate of soldier suicides at Fort Wainwright, and what’s being done about it. Army officials say three of the post’s soldiers killed themselves last year. They’re still investigating five other suspected cases of suicide reported between May 2018 and April 2019. But they’ve confirmed another 11 cases that occurred over the past five years.
“Suicide is a horrible, difficult issue,” McCarthy said in a meeting after his briefings.
Those cases have pushed the post’s suicide rate was well above the Army average. And that’s drawn the attention of top Army leaders – like Gen. James McConville, the Army’s Chief of Staff, who visited Alaska last fall to follow up on a study of the problem conducted earlier in year by a high-level team of public health experts.
“Behavioral health scientists really work very hard,” McCarthy said, “but it’s very hard to identify root causes associated with that.”
The study identified such factors as soldiers’ feelings of isolation and boredom due to lack of recreation and other activity, which often led to excessive drinking. The study also among other things cited the poor condition of housing, especially barracks, and substandard dining facilities and food. Also, a lack of sleep due to seasonal disruptions like 21 hours of daylight in the summer and a like amount of darkness, along with cold weather, during the winter.
“We’ve made some quick adjustments,” McCarthy said, “but some of the things we looked over the past 24 hours (require) longer-term investments, much larger and more comprehensive.”
McCarthy said those larger investments in for example construction of new facilities will take a while to gain approval and funding. But U.S. Army Alaska Commander Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak says many of the study’s recommendations already have been realized, like shuttle buses to transport soldiers all around the post and workout facilities that are available 24/7.
“We put investment into the dining facilities – Wi-Fi and new TVs,” Andrysiak said. “We put investment into getting higher-quality food in those dining facilities, and we’ve done that and we’ve seen positive feedback from soldiers.”
But perhaps the most important response to Wainwright’s suicide problem is promoting stronger ties between soldiers, to help them ensure their comrades are OK. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, who accompanied McCarthy on his trip to Alaska, calls the initiative This is My Squad. It encourages soldiers get to know each other, so they’ll be better able to ascertain if a member of the unit is having problems.
“When you know the people in your squad, and those around you, you can understand when something changes,” Grinston said. “If you don’t know them well, then it’s going to be hard to understand where those things come from.”
He cited an example of an exercise in which he told a group of soldiers to say something about themselves that the other troops in the unit didn’t know. He said one of them told him he really loves to play the violin. Grinston says that might be an important detail to know if the soldier someday lost interest in the instrument.
“All of sudden, he goes, ‘I’m selling my violin.’ And you go, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on?’ So you understand, because you know your people.”
Grinston says encouraging troops to forge closer bonds will save soldiers’ lives and help create a more effective fighting force.