Pentagon launches committee to study suicides at Alaska and US installations

Published: Mar. 29, 2022 at 8:58 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Pentagon wants to know why 11 Army Alaska soldiers committed suicide in 2021. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a new independent committee to review those cases, and others throughout the entire military.

“It’s imperative, the secretary believes, that we continue to take care of all our teammates and reinforce that mental health and suicide prevention remain a key priority,” said Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby at a March 22 news conference. “I think you’ve heard the secretary say many times, mental health is health, period.”

Austin has directed the U.S. Department of Defense to create a Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee, which will make a “comprehensive review” of the department’s efforts so far to prevent suicide, according to the press briefing by Kirby.

The committee, according to Kirby, will start its work no later than May 14, and will begin visits to military installations by Aug. 1.

Army Alaska said in a Feb. 25 news conference that five of those deaths in 2021 involved soldiers from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The rest came from Ft. Wainwright. Meanwhile, another six deaths remain under investigation. The total number represented an increase of four from 2020.

Many of the deaths involved relationships, according to Major Gen. Brian Eifler, the commanding general of Army Alaska. The average soldier who died by suicide was an 18-26 year old male. Part of the reason may be that person had difficulty adjusting to Alaska.

“That was one of those things that we also considered, is like ‘hey, should we not send initial term soldiers here for their first assignment, unless they request it,’” Eifler said.

The Army is now focused on recruiting soldiers who want to be in Alaska, instead of just assigning them here.

First though, getting emotional support for the troops is a priority.

“We fight the mantra of ‘hey, just tough it out’ right? ‘Be tough, I’m too tough for that, I don’t need that.’ So we’ve got to break through that,” Eifler said.

Meanwhile, every Army Alaska soldier, according to Eifler, will get a wellness check from behavioral health, or a military life family counselor to spot any signs of emotional problems.

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