3 Soldiers at 10th Mountain May Have Died by Suicide in 2 Days. The Division Is Trying to Figure Out Why.

Sign at the entrance to Fort Drum in the state of New York
Sign at the entrance to Fort Drum in the state of New York. (U.S. Army)

The Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, is reeling from the suspected deaths by suicide of three troops in a 48-hour period, including a soldier who was one of the last U.S. service members to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Pfc. Tyler Thomas, a 21-year-old Army signal support system specialist from Cedar Hill, Texas, died Sept. 16. The next day, two more soldiers -- Staff Sgt. Angel Green, a 24-year-old infantryman from Barstow, California, and Spc. Sika Tapueluelu, a 26-year-old cannon crewmember from Tukwila, Washington -- also died. 

10th Mountain is still investigating the deaths, but spokesman Lt. Col. Josh Jacques said all three are believed to have been caused by self-harm and unconnected to one another.

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Green, who was assigned to the division's 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment -- the unit known as the Polar Bears -- had recently returned from Afghanistan on Sept. 6. Jacques said officials don't believe his deployment was the "primary reason" for his death.

Green and his unit were present during the traumatic final days of the U.S.' war in Afghanistan. The 4-31 began deploying soldiers to Afghanistan last December to help provide security for troops and civilians leaving the country, and Green joined them March 10. 

Jacques said members of the Polar Bears were at Hamid Karzai International Airport during the fall of Kabul, and left during the final drawdown of troops from the airport.

This was Green's second deployment to Afghanistan. He also had deployed to Qatar once. 

Thomas was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. Tapueluelu was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

The three deaths in rapid succession underscore the difficulty the military has had trying to reduce the rates and risk of suicide among service members and veterans. Earlier this year, a Brown University study found that more than four times as many troops and veterans who had served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had died by suicide as were directly killed in the conflicts.

10th Mountain announced the soldiers' deaths in a Sept. 19 release. Division commander Maj. Gen. Milford Beagle asked the division's troops to check in with their teammates to make sure they are OK and to keep the three soldiers' families in their prayers. 

In the release, Beagle also urged soldiers to reach out on their own behalf if they are having troubles.

"To the soldiers of Fort Drum, the 10th Mountain Division and our entire Army, I want you to know every life is worth living!" he wrote. "If you have problems, challenges, or issues, there is help available from this chain of command all the way down, to help you get the resources you need. Do not suffer in silence."

When asked whether issues such as unit climate or other workplace factors might have been a factor in the three deaths, Jacques said the investigation is still looking into what may have caused them.

"Immediately when we have a situation when a soldier is suspected of taking their own life, we want to know the trigger," Beagle said in a statement Jacques emailed. "What are the underlying challenges that contributed to the decision to harm themselves? We want to know what didn't we catch? What are we missing? This is what our immediate focus is."

Jacques said Beagle gathered his commanders shortly after the three deaths and told them to talk to their soldiers about what had happened. Beagle also told them to renew their emphasis on preventing suicide, and to address potential triggers that might lead to someone taking their own lives.

10th Mountain shouldered some of the heaviest burdens of the Afghanistan War. For nearly 20 years, soldiers from the division were either deployed there, or preparing to deploy.

If you are a veteran seeking assistance with mental health issues, the Veterans Crisis Line is available at 800-273-8255, press 1, or by text at 838255. Help also is available through Vet Centers or the VA's website at www.MentalHealth.va.gov.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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