In January, Sgt. Zachary Calagui was found dead by a neighbor in his Fairbanks, Alaska, apartment. No foul play was suspected. His death was one data point in a massive jump in suicides among troops in Alaska in recent years.
Last year, at least 11 soldiers died by suicide in Alaska. Another six deaths are still under investigation. That grim number has sounded the alarm across the Army as it looks to recruit volunteers to bolster its arctic forces amid a newly revamped focus on training for frigid climates after the post-9/11 wars.
The number of troops dying by suicide in Alaska has seen a significant spike in recent years. In 2020, seven soldiers took their own lives; eight in 2019; and three in 2018.
It's a problem with no single solution as senior leaders in Alaska lobby the Pentagon for more mental health resources and desperately try even the smallest solutions, including offering free vitamin D supplements to help combat depression. Major upgrades to gyms and barracks, along with early release for soldiers on Fridays -- typically around 3 p.m., are all part of the push to fight the rising numbers.
Military.com interviewed numerous Alaska-based soldiers ranging from privates to senior leaders and found no evidence of systemic poor or abusive leadership. Instead, soldiers pointed to the isolated region, far from home with time zone differences and travel expenses making it hard to keep in contact with loved ones. Nearly all the soldiers who spoke to Military.com requested anonymity to speak freely on the subject and avoid retaliation.
Alaska has for years been the state with the highest suicide rate among the general population.
Army officials hope that mandating that all soldiers see a mental health counselor will help. But Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of U.S. Army Alaska, told Military.com he is struggling to recruit mental health providers to move to the state.
Bassett Army Community Hospital at Fort Wainwright has been given more resources, including boosted salaries and other retention incentives, to try to lure counselors up north to help. But that labor shortage on Alaskan bases is seen everywhere, including recreation facilities for soldiers.
"It's remote; it's isolated here," Eifler told Military.com. "Across the whole Army, I don't think we have enough behavioral health personnel. But we have a shortage of labor on everything here, including clinicians. We're asking the Army for help to fill that void to get more up here."
That labor shortage and the mandated appointments have triggered major backlogs for soldiers seeking help, some interviewed said. Others said that there's still a stigma against seeking help, despite the increased suicide rate.
Two noncommissioned officers said that some soldiers see behavioral health as a punishment, because troops who get in trouble for things such as for drinking and driving are forced into that same counseling. Another NCO who spoke to Military.com noted that it's important for troops to have hobbies, but a lot of Alaska-specific recreation, such as snowboarding, is expensive and new soldiers are often priced out.
To try to fight the stigma against seeking mental health care, and despite a shortage of counselors, Eifler is hoping to get every soldier an appointment within six months. Those mandated meetings, he said, have caught some early red flags, and several troops were connected to therapy and other resources.
"Everyone goes, me included. I went," he said. "We're catching people who should've went but were afraid to raise their hand, and we're getting them help."
Catching those red flags early has become a key initiative in the force. The bulk of Army suicides are not related to combat trauma. In fact, most soldiers who die by suicide have never been deployed abroad. Since the post-9/11 wars wound down, investigators have found that troops who died by suicide faced personal crises, including rocky romantic relationships or financial troubles.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told reporters in October that the focus of the service's suicide prevention efforts is on noncommissioned officers knowing their soldiers and identifying troubling behavior early on, addressing problems before they snowball into a crisis.
"We've placed a stronger focus on our younger leaders," Sgt. Maj. Alex Kupratty, the command sergeant major for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, told Military.com. "The rank of sergeant is where the rubber meets the road, and we're teaching them to deal with those issues they might encounter with dealing with new soldiers. That includes listening skills, coping skills and understanding the resources available."
If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255 (press 1), by texting 838255, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.