The thick investigative reports that follow Joint Base Lewis-McChord suicides can read like litanies of missed opportunities to connect with soldiers in distress.
The reports weave together accounts from dead soldiers’ families, fellow service members and doctors. The work is thorough, but the feedback comes too late.
“There’s nothing worse to read,” said Vicki Duffy, Lewis-McChord’s suicide prevention officer.
A new committee at Lewis-McChord is working to find answers for troubled soldiers in time to make a difference. It draws on the spectrum of voices that would contribute to an after-the-fact suicide report, but the committee steps in when soldiers notice a peer acting out of sorts instead of after a self-inflicted death.
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It’s one of several changes at Lewis-McChord since the base east of Olympia experienced its worst year for suicides during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thirteen service members killed themselves last year. The numbers are down this year, as three deaths are being investigated as possible suicides – one from the Air Force and two from Lewis-McChord’s Special Operations units.
But no one is crowing about what appears to be a positive trend. Last year appeared to be a normal one for suicide incidents until July, when five soldiers took their own lives.
“Everybody is linking arms,” Duffy said. “We all have this responsibility to stop suicides, and we’re all sharing it.”
Across the military, 2012 is shaping up to be a grim year for suicides. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that 154 active-duty service members had killed themselves in the first half of this year, a 50 percent increase over 2011.
Army suicides have been rising since 2005, though they appeared to level off over the past two years.
Lewis-McChord started changing its approach to suicide prevention in December 2010 with new Army guidelines that taught officers and noncommissioned officers better ways to inquire about the psychological health of their soldiers.
For example, leaders are supposed to talk with their soldiers in one-on-one meetings at regular intervals. In those sessions, the higher-ranking soldier might bring up issues such as finances or relationships to see if the junior soldier is under stress. Those discussions might help an officer or NCO guide the soldier to treatment.
Army I Corps Chief of Staff Col. Steven Bullimore wishes he could have made the training happen faster last year, even if he cannot say for sure that it would have saved a life. It was not yet fully adopted across the base last summer when suicides were starting to peak.
“If we’d just known more, we could have done something,” he said.
Duffy took her post coordinating Lewis-McChord’s suicide prevention efforts last July. She helped create the monthly suicide prevention committee to intervene in the base’s hardest cases. So far, it has reviewed 23 cases.
Bullimore leads the group, which includes professionals from behavioral health, a legal office, the Army Criminal Investigative Division and the unit-level leaders who raise concerns about their troubled soldiers.
The approach enables the committee to look at the full scope of a soldier’s service and health records. That doesn’t happen naturally in the Army because soldiers move from to station to station, and with each new assignment they meet new commanders and new doctors.
One case involved a soldier who was behaving erratically in such a way that his unit did not know how to work with him. Duffy reviewed the soldier’s health records and found that he had sought medical attention 173 times over two years – a clear sign of distress. He had also received different behavioral health diagnoses in that time.
The suicide prevention committee was able to bring different resources to the table and guide this soldier to Lewis-McChord’s Warrior Transition Battalion, where he is preparing to retire from the Army. It was the best solution to get the soldier the care he needed, Duffy said.
Lewis-McChord also made some changes to the inpatient psychiatric ward at Madigan Army Medical Center.
For example, it now encourages soldiers to visit friends who seek treatment there. Those visits, Duffy said, demonstrate that soldiers care about a comrade’s well-being. In the past, soldiers tended to avoid the ward, or not understand that they were welcome there when one of their peers was admitted to the hospital.
The changes reflect soldiers learning to talk about an uncomfortable subject, Bullimore said.
“We understand what to do when you’ve got a broken leg – don’t run,” Bullimore said. “We need some direction when it comes to mental health.”
Lewis-McChord soldiers are under somewhat different pressures this year than they were in 2011. Close to 10,000 soldiers are in Afghanistan today and another 4,000 are on their way.
Last year, no more than 2,000 South Sound soldiers were deployed to combat at any one time.
Duffy said the suicide risk remains the same whether home or abroad. Soldiers who did not deploy because of behavioral health issues are staying at Lewis-McChord for treatment this year.
“It’s really not deployment,” Duffy said. “Deaths happen downrange. Deaths happen in the garrison.”
The most important change has been the shift in tone, Duffy said.
“Instead of pointing fingers and blaming, we’re saying, ‘These are the services available to you,’” she said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org