In the Wake of High-Profile Suicides, the Army and Navy Are Trying to Adapt

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USS George Washington moors pierside at Naval Station Norfolk
USS George Washington (CVN 73), the nation's sixth Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, moors pierside at Naval Station Norfolk, May 25, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tatyana Freeman)

Driven by high-profile incidents of suicide and suicide clusters, the Navy and Army say they are working hard to address the issue and save lives.

But the picture that emerges as the services struggle with suicides is more mixed. It is an effort with successes in some areas but barely any progress in others.

The Navy recently unveiled a "playbook" that explains services available to sailors, and it has pushed leaders to address suicide. However, the state and availability of those services seem to vary throughout the fleet.

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Army senior leaders have long touted mental health as a key concern and lobbied for more behavioral health providers. But the service has paused a new Army-wide system to respond to suicide risk, and it hasn't established clear doctrine on how to care for at-risk soldiers or how to respond to suicide ideation and attempts.

"Any report of one of our sailors committing suicide is completely heart-wrenching," said Force Master Chief Jason Dunn, the most senior enlisted sailor at the Navy's Installations Command. "Even when we get to the point that we have one suicide in the entire Navy in one year, we need to continue to do better and we will."

The problem of suicide -- at rates higher than the civilian population -- has been plaguing the military for years. Military deaths increased 44% between 2015 and 2020 despite the Pentagon introducing new policies and increasing spending on the problem for more than a decade. In March 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin created a commission to study the problem; this March, he implemented the first of its recommendations.

The Navy had a string of suicides aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington -- at least nine since November 2019. It launched two major investigations and created the playbook as a doctrine to help prevent more deaths.

Navy officials who spoke with Military.com for this story said the 28-page document, which highlights stress and resilience resources aboard the ship as well as non-medical counseling available on base and medical care options, is meant to give commanders ideas on how to help struggling sailors.

At the center of the Navy push to get a lifeline to those at risk is a deeper question of whether the suicide resources are actually available to all sailors and are helping.

After a cluster of four suicides at a Norfolk, Virginia, maintenance facility, an investigation found the command struggled to offer even basic suicide prevention and didn't have any guidance on dealing with sailors who demonstrated suicidal behaviors or what should be done in the aftermath of a suicide.

Aboard the George Washington, one Navy investigation found that even with a rampant distrust of mental health resources, sailors stretched the onboard counselors to the brink -- while leaving another counselor three miles away almost completely unutilized.

Navy officials have said that hiring more counselors is a struggle for the service -- and something that is also a problem in the civilian world.

But the problem may be much wider and deeper than simply hiring health care workers. One of the investigations into suicides among George Washington sailors said an internal service audit "recently determined that the Navy, writ large, has failed to fully implement the suicide prevention program" in prior years.

Meanwhile, the Army's guidance on how a unit responds to an attempted suicide or ideation is vague and spread across numerous policies and separate training, with no consistent doctrine to tie them together.

The service has been promising to rewrite its suicide prevention program for three years, but the effort has been repeatedly delayed. Army planners' most recent delay is due to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's ongoing push for uniform prevention policies across all branches.

In May, Military.com reported on the death of Spc. Austin Valley, a soldier with the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas. Valley died by suicide at the Kansas base a month after fellow soldiers found him attempting to hang himself in a forest in Poland.

A review of Valley's behavioral health appointment schedule showed only a few meetings and with different health care providers. He was apparently not admitted into inpatient care, according to the documents and his parents. Military.com also reviewed his GPS records, which showed he routinely left base, presumably unsupervised.

Valley's death appeared to underscore that the unit and installation had no clear system or response to prevent his suicide.

Innovating in a Crisis

But the services have been making progress, often installation by installation, or command by command.

Coleen San Nicolas-Perez, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Installations Command -- the unit that oversees the service's bases and installations, told Military.com it works hard to make sure commanders of ships and smaller units stationed on Navy bases are aware of the suicide resources available.

One regional maintenance facility commander took the initiative and created a successful forum for his sailors that brought the resources of the Navy's Fleet and Family Services together with doctors and chaplains to answer questions and offer radical transparency.

"We need to be able to get to our sailors, every single one of them … not only when they need us the most but also just to let them know that we are here for them," San Nicolas-Perez said.

In an effort to change the climate among more senior sailors, the Navy has paid to train 25,000 sailors and Marines for a program called "Safetalk and Assist," which is aimed at giving service members tools to help one another, Andrea Goldstein, the Navy's acting director of its Office of Force Resiliency, told Military.com in an interview.

A press release on the program said the goal is to empower sailors "with the tools and confidence to help connect shipmates in need of resources when struggling with thoughts of suicide."

Goldstein noted that the Navy is going to continue funding the classes through next year "so that we still have tens of thousands more members of the force receive that training."

That lack of a service-wide Army suicide doctrine has lead to some installations developing their own suicide prevention programs.

Fort Liberty, North Carolina, which was previously known as Fort Bragg, has made minor tweaks to how it releases soldiers from inpatient care, which service officials have said is the most high-risk time.

Since last winter, Fort Liberty had at least 233 personnel deemed a suicide risk admitted into inpatient care, according to Maj. Matt Visser, a spokesperson for the XVIII Airborne Corps.

A new rule in place dictates that patients are not to be released right before a weekend or long holiday, so that at-risk soldiers do not have a long stretch of time alone. Instead, they are immediately reintegrated back into the unit, which in turn is supposed to schedule activities that the soldiers like, such as golfing, for example.

Since the policy was created, the base has seen no deaths attributed to suicide among soldiers who came out of inpatient care, according to Visser.

The 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, also began training commanders and noncommissioned officers to identify early red flags that can be a suicide risk, such as financial hardship and rocky romantic relationships.

Army leaders at Fort Drum are trained on how to connect soldiers with proper resources such as financial management tools or marriage counseling.

The new Navy playbook puts the responsibility for linking at-risk sailors to resources with leaders across the service, Goldstein said.

Leaders' Role

"You have to as a leader ... make time for your people to take care of themselves, promote the availability of those resources, make people feel safe to access those resources," she added.

For the Navy, the struggle comes when those superiors are disbelieving, apathetic or too busy to address sailors' needs.

In a service in which many sailors' ability to even leave the ship can be regulated and senior enlisted carry immense power over their lives, the attitudes become immensely important to any one sailor's story of success or failure.

The report on three suicides aboard the George Washington, as an example, concluded that one of the sailors needed more "counseling" -- a Navy term largely synonymous with punishment -- and says his superiors could have helped the sailor adapt better by giving him "extra military instruction (EMI), counseling, providing necessary resources, etc."

The first two options on that list are largely considered punishments.

Dunn, of the Navy's Installations Command, said that "the chiefs mess and all sailors have an important role when it comes to supporting each other" and that "if we are unable to do that, that is where some of the risks lie."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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

Related: A Soldier Attempted Suicide in Poland. Left to Roam at Fort Riley. He Killed Himself.

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