Army Capt. Kristen Bell stunned XVIII Airborne Corps leaders at a forum on preventing suicides in the ranks with her warning that soldiers assigned frequently to military funeral details are at risk of taking their own lives.
"Capt. Bell presented eye-opening statistics regarding the volume of soldier suicides following duty on military funeral details. Everyone in the room was surprised," said Col. Joe Buccino, spokesman for the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Bell drew on her experience last year as commander of the 97th Transportation Company, where she assigned 44 soldiers to a total of 52 military funerals from January through March 2020. In June 2020, one of those soldiers she assigned, a sergeant, died by suicide, Bell said in an interview with Military.com.
"I know it was something that deeply, emotionally affected him based on the conversations he would have with his father after presenting funeral honors" so many times over a short period, Bell said of the sergeant. "There were other members of that detail that experienced other hardships."
In 2020, a total of five deaths by suicide among soldiers were recorded at Fort Eustis, Virginia; three of the five took part in honors details she had assigned, Bell said.
There were other problems, she added.
"We did see an increase in legal troubles among those that served on the [military funeral] team … whether it was involvement in illegal substance use, DUIs -- that's where I made the correlation [that the emotional stress of serving on honors details could put soldiers at risk]," Bell said.
In a May 25 presentation on suicide prevention to the XVIII Airborne Corps' "Dragon's Lair" program, a format based on ABC's "Shark Tank" show, Bell recommended that the Army conduct mandatory, six-month behavioral assessments of all soldiers to gauge whether they might be at risk.
Making the assessments mandatory would remove the "stigma" that can attach to soldiers who seek help for emotional stress, she said.
"What I proposed for the change is for systematic and routine behavioral health screening ... specifically for a soldier before they participate in something such as funeral honors," Bell explained.
Her warning about the risk to soldiers assigned to military funerals may have come as a surprise to the leadership, but not to Sgt. Maj. Emmanuel Emekaekwue, the senior logistics noncommissioned officer for XVIII Airborne Corps.
He commended Bell for her presentation and also attested to the emotional strain on soldiers from repeated assignments to military funerals, citing his own experience while attending the Army Sergeant Major's Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas.
In an interview, Emekaekwue, a 23-year Army veteran with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, said one of his instructors told him that "when he was a battalion command sergeant major, he had soldiers on this detail [for military funerals]."
"He had a squared-away team. They were a go-to group [for the honors details]. It never dawned on him 'til somebody came and talked to him and said, 'Hey, Sergeant Major, we gotta switch these guys out because they're taking emotional heat doing this over and over,'" said Emekaekwue, who is originally from Nigeria.
In his own presentation to the Dragon's Lair panel, as well as in an earlier article in the NCO Journal, Emaekaekwue stressed the importance of top leadership in taking a hands-on approach to suicide prevention.
"I've been in the Army long enough to see that when leaders take something seriously, changes happen," he said.
Specifically, he said that battalion commanders and command sergeants major should take more time to speak with company commanders and first sergeants on how to deal with stresses that may be affecting their troops.
The top leaders have more experience, he said. "It's just another set of eyes. This is more eyes to help the population of soldiers that are hurting the most," he explained.
Suicides Increase Across the Services
Dr. Rajeev Ramchand, a senior behavioral scientist at Rand Corp., said the concern that soldiers assigned to military funerals might be at risk is new to him, but added he is not surprised by Bell's analysis.
"Every individual has a different level of vulnerability" in stress situations, said Ramchand, co-director of Rand's Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute. "The same experience is going to affect different people differently."
In the case of military funerals, there could be a risk of emotional distress for those participating, "whereas others could do it quite well."
The Army would do well to consider careful preparation for those assigned to military funerals and making sure they know that support is available, he said.
The possibility that participating in funerals might be a factor in the increase in suicides across all the service branches did not figure in recent reports from the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.
According to the Defense Department's 2019 Annual Suicide Report, which was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were 344 suicides among active-duty personnel in 2019, up from 326 the year before. The rate of suicides per 100,000 service members was 25.9 -- the highest level since the military began tracking suicides in the ranks in 2000.
Last September, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said he expected the suicide numbers to increase as a result of the pandemic.
"COVID adds stress," he said at the Air Force Association's virtual Air, Space & Cyber conference in 2020. "From a suicide perspective, we are on a path to be as bad as last year. And that's not just an Air Force problem, this is a national problem because COVID adds some additional stressors -- a fear of the unknown for certain folks."
The latest quarterly report from the Defense Suicide Prevention Office appears to back up Brown's concerns about the pandemic's impact on suicides.
The report, released in early April, showed that the military recorded 156 deaths by suicide among all services, including active-duty, National Guard and Reserve troops, from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 last year. The 156 deaths represented a 25% increase from the 125 suicides that occurred in the last quarter of calendar year 2019, the report said.
At Fort Bragg last week, the Dragon's Lair program heard five presentations on suicide prevention from among a total of 84 proposals submitted from soldiers of the XVIII Airborne Corps, as well as from soldiers in Army units unaffiliated with the Corps.
Lt. Gen. Michael "Erik" Kurilla, the Corps commander, "was particularly interested in Kristen Bell's idea for mandatory behavioral health checks for all soldiers every six months. This idea, we believe, can go a long way to destigmatizing seeking help," said Buccino, the spokesman for the Corps.
All soldiers would be required to get the check, "so there is no stigma," he said in a statement to Military.com.
Others who submitted presentations at Dragon's Lair and spoke with Military.com included Spc. Skyler Boyer and Col. Will Bimson, command surgeon for the XVIII Airborne Corps. Both praised Bell's initiative in bringing forward her concerns about soldiers participating in military funerals.
"I personally think it's a great idea," Boyer said of Bell's call for mandatory, six-month behavioral assessment evaluations for all soldiers.
His own submission called for the Army to make better use of the enormous amount of data it collects on soldiers to gauge unit morale, including the periodic command climate surveys. His recommendation: Do it by text message.
"The problem is most people don't take these surveys seriously," Boyer said. "People tend to glaze over emails. I think with text the response rate would be a lot higher."
In an interview, Bimson said that Kurilla had tasked him as the Corps' surgeon to follow up on the feasibility of implementing Bell's recommendations.
"I mean, that sounds like a high-risk group of people," Bimson said of the military funeral details.
He said that one of the issues in suicide prevention is realizing that "suicide is infectious."
If someone in the soldier's family has died by suicide, "then you're at increased risk," Bimson said.
His own recommendation on suicide prevention involved addressing the spiritual needs of soldiers, and giving priority to spirituality in the same way that the Army emphasizes physical fitness.
"Everyone knows that you're not supposed to evangelize, you're not supposed to proselytize," Bimson said, but said there are non-denominational methods to give soldiers a spiritual grounding to focus on their purpose in life and why they're here.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.