The Army’s vice chief of staff on Monday said the mental health of soldiers ultimately is the responsibility of every soldier, from the most senior to the newest.
“It will require all our efforts, from 4-star to the newest private in our ranks. But we can do this,” Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III told a crowd at the Association of the U.S. Army annual conference.
Austin is leading the Army’s effort to reverse its upward spiral of suicides. He has been making the rounds of Army bases, talking about the issue, and looking for “best practices” to tackle it, the Army said in a Sept. 28 statement. Austin has been encouraged, but says there is still work to be done, the statement said.
As of late September, the Army had nearly 240 potential suicides this year. The Army and sister services have been pushing a message – still not fully embraced – that it’s okay for troops to ask for and get help when they feel psychologically stressed or depressed.
At AUSA, he told soldiers they need to do what is necessary to build individual resilience and ensure both physical and mental fitness.
“It is not an additional task or something you should only focus on if there is available time,” he said. “My challenge to all of you today is to go back to your units and your organizations and lead this effort.”
Austin pointed out that what soldiers are expected to do carries burdens – multiple deployments, daily patrols and the premise of killing another human.
“This is tough business. We are required to close with and destroy our nation’s enemies, and that sometimes involves the taking of human life,” he said.
In the civilian world, he said, an officer who fires a single shot at a person, even if the shot misses, is likely going to have behavioral counseling to ensure he remains psychologically fit.
“It’s standard procedure in many cases,” he said. “It’s routine.”
Army efforts to safeguard the mental health of soldiers must also be routine. He told the group that they must make every effort to improve their resilience and life-coping skills, and make sure other soldiers to the same.
“We have to change the mindset among leaders and our soldiers, to get folks to understand that asking for and receiving help is a sign of strength.”