Inside the Gates: Army Alaska battles suicides among its soldiers

“This is my priority,” commanding general of Army Alaska Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler said during a press conference.
Published: Mar. 2, 2022 at 6:46 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Army Alaska has waged a new battle, one designed to protect the mental health of soldiers who may want to harm themselves.

Content Warning: This article contains information about suicide that may be difficult for some readers.

“This is my priority,” commanding general of Army Alaska Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler said during a press conference.

In 2021, 11 soldiers took their own lives — four more than the previous year — but six of those remain under investigation. Of the soldiers who took their own lives, six of the deaths involved soldiers at Ft. Wainwright, according to Army Alaska. Soldiers from JBER made up the rest.

“It’s the 18-26 year old male. We see a lot of that sort of similar age and gender for our suicides,” Eifler said.

Those soldiers, according to Eifler, share something else in common.

“We see a lot of the suicides are in their first year here,” Eifler said. “But not necessarily initial-term soldiers.”

Army Alaska is also looking into what role the duty stations played in the deaths. Alaska presents some of the harshest winter training environments for the military, including sub-zero temperatures and long, dark nights. Those elements, according to Eifler, can be challenging for some soldiers.

“A lot of the pain that we’re dealing with is mental frustration pain, not necessarily physical pain,” Eifler said. “But the frustrations, and the coping skills is the pain, or the pain of depression.”

Eifler’s concern is that many soldiers will keep their struggles to themselves.

“Some people are very resistant to reach out for help. Maybe they’re embarrassed. Maybe they’re ashamed,” Eifler said.

Army Alaska now turns its focus to suicide prevention.

“100% of our soldiers will get a wellness check from Behavioral Health, or the Military Family Life Counselor,” Eifler said.

There has been a belief inside the military that emotional issues could mark the end of someone’s career. Eifler denied those presumptions.

“It was sort of looked at as like, you know this scarlet letter or something. It’s not,” Eifler said. “Again, you get hurt, you get checked, you get healthy, and you get back in the game. This is what this is about to me.”

But Army Alaska needs help. It’s short 12 trained mental health professionals to treat soldiers at Ft. Wainwright, according to Eifler, and in need of an additional 10 for JBER.

“The only statistic that really matters is the reduction in suicides,” Eifler said.

If you are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Stop Suicide Alaska at 1-877-266-HELP.

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