U.S Army Alaska continues to combat soldier suicide
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Due to the increase in soldier suicides over the last several years, U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK) at Fort Wainwright (FWA) and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) have been working to improve the quality of life for soldiers around the state.
“The question is why - why suicide is on the rise in Alaska. It is something we are trying to figure out,” said the Commanding General of US Army Alaska, Major General Brian Eifler at a media round table discussion Friday, February 25, 2022.
2021 saw the highest reported suicides of soldiers in Alaska. 11 deaths were reported, with 6 additional fatalities that are still under investigation.
More than half of those deaths were reported on Fort Wainwright. The post had the second-highest rate of suicides per capita among all U.S Army facilities last year.
This has become a crisis that the USARAK has been grappling to solve. “This is what is hurting our soldiers, so we got to figure it out,” Eifler said.
During the media round table discussion, leadership from around the state addressed the rise in suicide, answered questions, and gave insight on how they are making improvements to the quality of life for soldiers.
Leadership requested assistance from the U.S. Army Public Health Center’s Behavioral and Social Health Outcomes Program to conduct a behavioral health epidemiological consultation (EPICON) to evaluate the situation in 2019.
From this report, the EPICON team found soldiers who died by suicide had indications of multiple risk factors. These included pain, severe sleep problems, depression, loneliness, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and hazardous drinking.
The report stated in the month prior to taking the online survey, 10.8% of FWA Soldiers reported suicidal ideation.
The report also stated that for over half (57%) of the soldier population surveyed, FWA was their first duty station.
Colonel Nate Surrey, Fort Wainwright Garrison Commander said this is not surprising. He said the larger majority of soldiers at FWA are made up of first-term privates, private-first class, and specialist levels. He added as the ranks go up there are fewer of those soldiers on base.
When asked if Fort Wainwright as a first duty station had any correlation with soldier suicide, Colonel Surrey stated it is possible it could be an accelerant. He also said Alaska’s harsh seasons with long winters and darkness, the extended sunlight in the summer, and remoteness can be hard on the soldiers.
“So if you’re in the lower 48, and let’s stay you’re stationed at Fort Campbell, you can pretty much drive anywhere in the United States within two or three days,” Colonel Surrey said. “You don’t have that capability here. It can definitely be an accelerant. Terms of first-term soldiers, again, because they’re adjusting to the army life, it could also be an accelerant there too.”
Colonel Surrey explained one of the initiatives the Army is working on implementing is doing an evaluation and giving soldiers an opportunity to choose Alaska as their first location. “I think that will help out tremendously in that world.”
Another approach to understanding mental health among soldiers is to have soldiers participate in an annual wellness check.
Colonel Surrey went on to talk about Mission 100, saying this is a program Major General Brian Eifler has instituted.
“I think is wonderful because it requires leaders to connect with their soldiers, soldiers connect with soldiers; but we’re actually calling all of their spouses and/or their parents if they don’t have a spouse to have that additional connection,” Col. Surrey explained. “We’ve seen several success stories where those connections with the extended family have resulted in better communication about what is going on in that soldier’s life.”
Colonel Surrey says it is one of the most powerful programs he has engaged in within his 24-years in the military. “It’s already paying a lot of dividends because we are seeing a lot of soldiers come forward and ask for that help. It’s continuing to change the culture that it is okay to ask for help.”
Colonel Surrey continued, “One, it allows them to open up maybe for the first time with a counselor. Two, it allows them to know that this resource is available. Sometimes that is all it is, and other times it might be you need more advanced medical care at a higher clinician level. So that initial contact can provide that opening.”
This is just one of the solutions the Army is implementing to save lives and improve the quality of life for our service members in Alaska.
*updated for clarification
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