Lawmakers Demand the Army Come Up with a Better Plan for Alaska-based Soldiers After String of Suicides

Snipers provide cover for infantry during a training exercise in Alaska.
Snipers provide cover for infantry assaulting an objective during a training exercise in Alaska in 2022. ( photo by Steve Beynon)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is raising the alarm over an ongoing suicide crisis among troops in Alaska, saying the Army needs to rapidly pour more resources into those rural bases.

Alaska Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, along with Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., sent a letter to Secretary of the Army Chrstine Wormuth outlining troubling findings of delayed mental health care and poor economic situations isolating junior enlisted troops as key points the service needs to fix.

"Service members stationed in Alaska are under an outsized level of stress from several angles, including behavioral health specialist shortages, financial challenges, infrastructure and transportation limitations, and the adjustment to living in a remote location with extreme cold weather," the lawmakers wrote in their joint letter.

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Leaders in Alaska have been scrambling for resources after at least 11 soldiers died by suicide last year, with another six deaths still under investigation. That's an increase from 2020, when seven soldiers committed suicide, and eight in 2019.

One of the key issues, those lawmakers found, was extensive wait times for a first appointment with a mental health care provider -- often taking more than two weeks. Compounding that issue is a lack of providers. Right now, Fort Wainwright has 11 unfilled mental health care positions.

"This has put unbearable pressure on the uniformed and civilian providers who are filling those billets, increasing the likelihood that they quit and further exacerbate the problem," the lawmakers said.

Another major concern is the inherent isolation in Alaska and the major time difference from where most of the U.S. population lives, making it difficult for troops to stay connected to their friends and family at home. Lawmakers also noted economic concerns, mostly among junior enlisted soldiers finding it difficult to afford flights to the lower 48 states, and requested Army leaders to provide solutions to ease soldiers' financial burdens. One idea, the lawmakers suggested, was an extra $300 pay per month to troops based in Alaska.

"Furthermore, soldiers told us that they cannot always get leave approved for trips outside of block leave periods which usually only occur around the major holidays," they added.

In March, spent more than a week in Alaska, interviewing senior leaders and rank-and-file soldiers. Most troops were concerned about the lack of consistency with seeking care; some had anecdotes of appointments taking up to a month. In other cases, some said there's still a stigma tied to seeking care, with soldiers afraid they'll not be allowed to do their jobs, which often includes handling weapons. In other cases, service members were afraid that seeking care made it appear they were being disciplined, given troops are forced into similar care after drinking incidents or other disciplinary cases.

Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of U.S. Army Alaska, told he is mandating all troops have at least one mental health care appointment this year. While that mandate is likely contributing to the backlog, Eifler says those appointments are catching soldiers who were having problems but weren't seeking care.

Eifler said the biggest issue is recruiting mental health care workers to relocate to rural Alaska, as well as other personnel for the Army's civilian workforce -- including people to operate the gym and dining facilities. Some of those amenities not being fully staffed is likely contributing to quality-of-life issues among the 20,000 troops, half of whom are soldiers, across Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Fort Greely and Fort Wainwright.

Senior Army leaders are hoping to morph Alaska into a mostly volunteer assignment. Right now, new enlistees can be guaranteed to be stationed there if they elect to.

But Speier, Sullivan and Murkowski want the Army to develop a plan so that the ranks in Alaska aren't being filled ad hoc, like most other duty stations. In their letter to Wormuth, they said this could include screening new recruits ahead of time to see whether they're a good fit. They also suggested additional incentives.

Alaska represents a relatively small part of a growing suicide crisis within the ranks. Data from the Defense Department shows 176 active-duty soldiers died by suicide in 2021. In the same year, 74 Army reservists and 101 National Guardsmen died by suicide, respectively.

Data shows the bulk of those suicides were not immediately tied to combat trauma, with most deaths occuring among troops with no past combat deployments. Army leaders and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have struggled to come up with solutions to counter the crisis, which is also being seen among civilians. For now, the service's main tactic is training junior noncommissioned officers to identify red flags early among the soldiers they lead, which in many cases involves rocky romantic relationships and financial trouble.

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

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Alaska Army Leaders Scramble for Help After Spike in Suicides

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