Military suicides are up, and plans to reduce them are getting mixed views
In 2019, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri’s Ozarks had the highest number of suicide attempts among the Army’s soldiers in their first six months of service.
The military post is home to more than 15,000 basic trainees every year and hosts advanced individual training that follows basic training in areas including military policing and engineering.
In response to the increase in suicides, Fort Leonard Wood started numerous programs designed to help soldiers feel connected and know they could reach out for help.
Those efforts include a Resiliency Fair, held in a large hall on base where soldiers, their families and civilian employees could learn about options to get help or help their loved ones who are experiencing mental health issues.
It included tables where information was offered via brochures, posters and PowerPoint presentations about subjects including social athletic groups and help for those experiencing sexual harassment.
“We want everyone to know if they see a fellow soldier or a family member who is struggling, if they see a dramatic mood swing, they have the ability to stop and have that conversation, to make sure they know they are part of a team,” said Malia Nemetz, an Army retiree who is now Fort Leonard Wood’s suicide prevention manager. “They are part of an organization. They are not alone.”
The Resiliency Fair is the latest in Fort Leonard Wood’s efforts to reduce instances of suicide and help soldiers connect with a variety of resources that can help them with their mental health.
In 2019, Fort Leonard Wood launched the “I Choose To Live” campaign, in which soldiers who suffered with mental health issues and even attempted suicide shared their stories about how they got help.
The program was the brainchild of Sgt. Maj. Jason VanKleeck, who was then stationed at Fort Leonard Wood but openly shared his struggles with mental health and suicidal thoughts 10 years earlier.
“We are very reactive in mental health education in the sense of why are we not finding the people who did survive and say, 'What’s your story?' So the next person knows they are not the only one, and there is a way to get through it,” VanKleeck said when the program launched.
Fort Leonard Wood’s current efforts include increased involvement of the chaplains on post.
“We wear the same uniform, and we’ve been through many of the same things,” said Lt. Col. Bradley Godding, the head of chaplains at Fort Leonard Wood. “We can be the ones soldiers can relate to.”
Since any communication with a chaplain is confidential, Godding hopes he and his colleagues can become trusted confidants from the moment a new recruit comes on post.
“As a new soldier comes into the Army, they are given a briefing from a chaplain, and those chaplains talk to them about the value of life and the places they can seek help and get help early,” Godding said.
Even with Fort Leonard Wood and other military installations working on programs to improve mental health, some people close to the issue of military suicide say the armed forces put too much of the burden on soldiers to get help, which doesn’t do much to solve the problem.
“I think that is absolutely ridiculous. I think that is beyond absurd,” said Sara Wilkinson of Virginia Beach, Va. Her husband, Chad Wilkinson, a Navy SEAL, died by suicide in 2018.
Wilkinson read Fort Leonard Wood’s literature on suicide prevention and said it was too focused on seeing mental health as nothing more than a means to being ready for combat.
“So right there, what the military is saying is, ‘We don’t necessarily need you to be good for you. We need you to be good so you are mission ready’,” Wilkinson said.
Jennifer Keeling’s husband, Ronald, was one year away from retirement from the Army in 2009 when he died by suicide. She said that the armed forces still haven’t fully addressed the stigma of mental illness, and that soldiers think they are weak if they seek help.
“He said he couldn’t tell his command because he wouldn’t get promoted. And once he got promoted to first sergeant, he was worried how it would look for the person who was supposed to be in charge and have it all together was seeking mental health help,” Keeling said.
Keeling has been working with private, nonprofit groups addressing military mental health issues and suicides. She said things are getting better but not quickly enough.
“Still to this day, the information isn’t being put out there that there is a way to seek help and for it to be confidential that won’t go on a soldier’s record,” Keeling said. “The more we talk about it, the better. But we need to get to soldiers before the crisis.”
Advocacy groups agree and say the military should be taking the same approach to training commanding officers to spot the signs of mental health problems as it does in training troops for military activities.
“We don’t train people to go to combat through PowerPoint presentations alone,” said Chris Ford, CEO of Stop Soldier Suicide. “There’s hands-on exercises and experiences. Can we invest in more hands-on, practicum and training and recurring training to routinize and reinforce those skills in frontline supervisors?”
Ford gives the military credit for trying to address the issue of suicide but said it can and should be doing so much more.
Fort Leonard Wood leaders say they are committed to long-term efforts to address mental health and reduce instances of suicide. The installation’s entire leadership team reviews every suicide attempt on base.
“Just to make sure: What can we do better? How can we make a more positive, healthy environment? How can we make things available? How can we make the resources available to the soldiers?” Nemetz said.
Nemetz said even one soldier suicide is too many, but human nature and the power of psychological problems will make it hard to prevent all suicides. She does report an increase in the number of soldiers and their families reaching out and seeking help in the past year.
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This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.