Troops at Remote and Overseas Bases Attempt Suicide More Often, GAO Finds

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U.S. Army prepare to board a CH-47 Chinook.
U.S. Army prepare to board a CH-47 Chinook operated by the 1-52nd General Service Aviation Battalion at Malemute Drop Zone on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Oct. 5, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Patrick Sullivan)

Troops stationed at remote and overseas bases attempted suicide at slightly higher rates but were less often successful compared to the general active-duty military population, according to findings in a new Government Accountability Office report.

Nearly 19% of all suicide attempts occured at those bases, but only 10% of suicide deaths, the federal watchdog found. The remote facilities may have higher suicide risk factors, such as social isolation and less access to mental health services, but troops at overseas bases also often lack the same access to personal firearms, which are used in the majority of military suicides.

However, the Pentagon has not fully assessed those suicide risks, and that process could help reduce such deaths, the GAO said in the report mandated by Congress. The report listed more than 50 installations that are overseas or considered remote, including Fort Wainwright, Alaska; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Naval Air Facility Misawa, Japan.

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The findings come amid a spike in troops taking their own lives at isolated bases in Alaska, as well as a string of suicides among the crew of the dry-docked aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

In March, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered an independent commission to look at suicides at three Alaska bases; Camp Humphreys, South Korea, the largest overseas U.S. military base; and other key bases inside the U.S., such as Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Lawmakers ordered the GAO to look into suicides at remote and overseas bases in 2020 following a 33.5% increase in the deaths over the previous four years.

Between 2016 and 2020, 1,806 active-duty troops took their own lives across all duty stations, while an additional 7,178 attempted suicide, according to the GAO.

Navy and Marine Corps suicide prevention officials told investigators that some of the risk factors included social isolation. In the case of some duty stations in Japan, officials said it can be difficult for service members to engage with the local culture.

Easy access to guns accounts for the majority of suicides in the force. Overwhelmingly, weapons used in suicides are not issued by the military -- roughly 95% are personally owned.

Gun safety and proper storage have been given increased attention in recent years, both from the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs, in an effort to give those with suicidal thoughts time to cool down.

"Research also shows it can take less than 10 minutes between thinking about suicide to acting on it," a statement last week from the Defense Departent's Suicide Prevention Office said. "For many people, thoughts of suicide and the desire to end one's life come quickly and intensely."

Isolation and a lack of mental health resources have been blamed for the recent surge in suicides in Alaska.

Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, head of U.S. Army Alaska, told Military.com in March that he is struggling to hire mental health professionals, given the difficulties in convincing them to relocate to Alaska. Troops interviewed by Military.com said a first appointment with a mental health counselor can take at least two weeks -- and a month or longer, in some cases.

"The infrastructure that is necessary in Alaska for behavioral health is woefully inadequate," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the House Armed Services Committee's subpanel on military personnel, told reporters last week.

Austin and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth have recently paid visits to bases in Alaska, but plans to stem the rate of suicides have not materialized. Lawmakers have proposed increased pay for troops and argued that morale could be boosted with a stronger identity for troops in the state, such as making the "Arctic" tab an award they could wear at any installation.

If you or someone you know needs help, the Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.

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

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