U.S Army Alaska addresses four soldier deaths in less than one month.
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - A recent spike in soldier deaths over the last month has left U.S Army Alaska (USARAK) going back and “doubling down” on their efforts to address the high amount of soldier suicides that have occurred recently and over the last several years.
“Over the course of the last 30 days or so we have had four deaths, said John Pennell, Chief of Media Relations for the 11th Airborne Division out of Anchorage. “Three at Fort Wainwright, one down here at JBER here in Anchorage.” Pennell explained these deaths occurred from the 10th of October through the 1st of November, 2022.
Due to a policy change, USARK did not formally address the information to the public. Instead a letter was sent to soldiers and families signed by U.S Command Sergeant Major Vern B. Daley Jr., and U.S Army Commanding Major General Brian Eifler. “It is understandable when there is no information provided, something will come forward and fill that vacuum, whether it is rumors or actual facts,” Pennell.
The letter was addressed on November 4. Within it, the letter read, “Many of you already know we lost four Arctic Angels in the past 30 days.” It also did not state suicide was the cause of these deaths but quoted” to the enemy of despair.”
“If you read into General Maj. Eifler’s message I think you will see that, we are afraid that this will add to our total of suicides which is significantly lower than last year, however even one is too many,” said Pennell. He said the deaths are currently under investigation by the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID).
Additionally, USARAK cannot characterize the deaths until the CID investigation is completed and a ruling has been made by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.
Although Pennell did say it is concerning given their recent history. “We are really trying with this,” he said. “We understand the situation. We understand the severity of the problem, and we are, and the command is devoted to solving this issue.”
The big thing he said, “Is within the formations we know what’s going on. There is, I don’t want to call it the information grapevine, but that’s pretty much what it comes down to, the information spreads by either word of mouth or through official channels. We want people to understand that we do care, we do see what is happening. Each one of these cases you have to look at individually.”
One of the main focuses USARAK is focused on is building connections with soldiers. “We want soldiers to be connected to their fellow soldiers,” he said. Additionally, connections with leaders and family are also a priority. That way, he said if there is a problem that arises people know who to reach out to.
2021 saw the highest amount of soldier suicides, 17 in total. Which was even greater than the spike that prompted the Behavioral Health Epidemiological Consultation (EPICON) Team to evaluate the number of suicides in 2019.
“That’s a huge step to solving a problem, is knowing who to talk to,” said Pennell.
Fact Sheet on BH EPICON: https://phc.amedd.army.mil/PHC%20Resource%20Library/EPICONInfoSheet_13Nov2017.pdf
The EPICON’s Evaluation was released and was followed up with a Round Table Discussion led by Maj. General Brian Eifler in February 2022.
Since that time the U.S Army has made changes in the efforts to reduce the number of deaths.
“With our Mission 100 and counseling sessions we feel like we are on the right path,” said Pennell. “We are making connections with the soldiers, a lot of it now is going to depend on feedback from the soldiers.”
The goal of Mission 100 is to improve the quality of life for soldiers and their families. Connecting soldiers with soldiers, soldiers with leaders, and leaders with soldiers’ families. Another aspect of Mission 100 is implementing a mandatory mental health consultation for 100 percent of all soldiers with a Military Life Counselor.
“Through our Mission 100 program we have made great progress in creating those connections with soldiers,” he said. Additionally, he said this will also help to break down the stigma surrounding mental health because everyone is required to participate.
“This is their opportunity to go in and see how counseling works,” he explained. “It is an initial counseling session, it is low stress, nobody is taking notes or anything. It is just a chance for them to experience counseling and sees that it is just, really not only can it be very helpful, but it is also not as scary as that they thought it may be.”
Soldiers are then able to make follow-up appointments for themselves and advocate counseling for family members and for other soldiers. There are also other resources available such as family assistance and financial resources. Pennell said a huge improvement was a decrease in wait time for behavioral health consultations.
“Right now, if a soldier goes in, all they have to go is tell the people that you are in a crisis,” said Pennell. “It can be extremely difficult to say I need help. I’m thinking of harming myself, but the benefit is by saying that those two simple sentences, you are going to get help immediately.”
Even follow-up appointments he added have been cut down to 5 to 10 days. The initial appointment he explained is the most important. For those soldiers who attend their initial appointment and are having any troubling thoughts or feelings, those he said are the ones they want to “get to immediately.”
“If anybody comes to you and says, “Hey I’m not feeling right, something is going wrong.” As a leader, family member, just a fellow soldier, know that there is help out there and all you have to do is make that first step,” said Pennell.
Military Chaplains are also available for servicemembers and their families for an array of services, such as providing spiritually integrated therapy for marriage, family, grief, trauma, and stress. Their services are in direct support of mission 100.
Pennell has a list of some updated numbers for the Arctic Angels Annual Wellness Counseling Sessions:
Total Roll Up to date: 36 Weeks
· Soldiers Seen: 10,946 (Roughly 11,000 Expected to be Counseled)
· Rough Weekly Average is between 230--255 Soldiers
· Rough Monthly Average (based on 4 Weeks) is between 920 -1,020 Soldiers
· Currently at JBER we conduct 42 Counseling Sessions a Day
· Currently at FWA we conduct 36 Counseling Sessions a Day
· Total 86 Sessions a day between both Installations
· Over 1,050 Soldiers have made additional counseling sessions with a Military and Family Life Counselor for themselves, a family member, or for couples counseling
· Over 2,750 Soldiers who have had a session indicated they would return, or they would recommend MFLCs to others
· Over 4,490 Soldiers have been referred from counseling sessions to other helping agencies (finance/marriage counseling / FAP)
Pennell said the best way for the leadership of USARAK to better understand what the needs are for soldiers and families is for the soldiers to tell them how they can better serve their needs.
“We can go out and have all these programs targeting what we think are the problems,” he explained. “But the soldiers are the ones who know what those problems are. If they are seeing those problems and are afraid to report them, or if they see a problem and they want to leave for somebody else to deal with or whatever, we can’t solve a problem we don’t know exists.”
With the holidays just around the corner, Pennell knows this can sometimes be a lonely time for a soldier who may be far from their family. He said he’s been there and has been on “that side of the line.”
“You have to open yourself up to the people around you,” he said. “It’s easier in fact to confine yourself into your barracks room and try and sleep away the holidays. But it is a lot more fun if you have friends, and coworkers, who are willing to reach out and say, “hey come spend the holidays with me, or come over for dinner.”
The main take away he said, is to make those connections with other people.
According to Pennell the U.S Army Alaska will continue to combat soldier suicides head-on because even one soldier’s suicide is one too many.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, help is available 24-7, every day of the year by dialing or texting 988. For servicemembers or Veterans, pressing 1 will be directed to resources that understand military culture. All calls are confidential and Free.
Below is a list of resources available to service members and their families on a local level:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 Alaska Suicide & Crisis Hotline 1-877-266-HELP (4357) Alaska Suicide Hotline 907-563-3200 SHARP Hotline 24/7 907-353-7272 Military & Family Life Consultants 907-388-2553 Spiritual Assistance Chaplain 24/7 907-353-6666
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