YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — As the entire military grapples with a rising tide of suicides despite years of fighting what some call an epidemic, the Army will take a day to focus on the problem and how to prevent it.
In the coming days, soldiers from Germany to South Korea to the Pentagon will be attending mandatory suicide prevention training, followed by additional programs or activities chosen by local leaders that promote getting help and recognizing when others might need it, too.
Army Vice Chief Staff Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III ordered the “stand down” following the release of figures indicating 38 soldiers killed themselves in July. So far this year, 187 soldiers — 116 on active duty — are believed to have died by their own hands.
“Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army,” said Austin, who oversees suicide issues as the Army’s No. 2 officer. “Ultimately we want the mindset across our force and society at large to be that behavioral health is a routine part of what we do and who we are.”
A theme in this latest Army campaign is that all soldiers — from generals to GIs — are responsible for helping prevent suicide. The message differs slightly from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent take on the issue, which focused on holding the brass more accountable for curbing the disturbing rates.
“Leaders ought to be judged by how they lead on this issue,” Panetta told USA Today earlier in September, national suicide prevention month.
The 38 suspected suicides in July — two confirmed and 36 still under investigation — account for the highest monthly number since the Army began keeping detailed records in 2009 and is a significant jump from 24 potential suicides in June.
The Army had 283 confirmed suicides in 2011.
“I am very sad to report that if the current trend continues, that number will be surpassed in 2012,” Maj. Gen. Michael T. Harrison, commander of U.S. Army Japan, said in a video posted on the command’s Facebook page. “It is an epidemic that is weakening the very fiber of our Army and tearing us apart from the inside.”
Since 2001, 1,334 soldiers have committed suicide, Defense Department figures show.
Along with the standardized training provided by Army headquarters this week and next, soldiers stationed in Japan will attend a reading of the Greek tragedy Ajax — the story of a soldier so consumed by rage that he kills himself — by a group that calls itself “Theater of War.” The professional acting troupe has been touring military bases for several years and was requested by USARJ.
“It’s designed to create an emotional and dramatic environment to get people to talk about how they’ve been dealing with post-traumatic stress and stress in general,” said Maj. Randall Baucom, spokesman for USARJ. The performance will be followed by an audience discussion led by the actors and Army mental health professionals.
“The message is very clear: Take interest in your people as a leader and look out for your battle buddy,” Baucom said. “It’s your job to be a little bit nosy when somebody’s struggling.”
That concept is flourishing in the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea, which has suffered no suicides among its 9,000 soldiers since September 2010, unit spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Scrocca said.
Reports of suicidal thoughts or gestures among 2nd ID soldiers have risen dramatically over the past 18 months, but actual attempts have decreased, Scrocca said.
“While the initial ideations are going up, awareness is also up,” he said. “We’re happy to see people recognizing soldiers who need help early on and then helping them get it.”
About 80 percent of the prevention is attributed to non-professionals – fellow soldiers, NCOs, dependents and others – as opposed to mental health professionals or chaplains, he said.
The 2ID’s success also stems from what Scrocca called a unique resiliency program that expands upon the Army’s standard suicide prevention training and which all incoming soldiers are required to attend.
Most of the division’s soldiers are new to the Army and have yet to deploy to a combat zone when they get to Korea, giving 2ID a two-fold advantage on suicide prevention, Scrocca said: Newbie soldiers are less prone to suicide than those who have been to war, and they are clean slates upon which to build their conceptions of suicide and suicide prevention, such as dispelling the long-held military fear that reaching out for help eventually will lead to discharge.
“There is nothing official or unofficial that would lead to discharging someone for a suicide ideation…It has nothing to do with the re-enlistment process,” Scrocca said.
The Army held a suicide prevention stand down in 2009 focused on training leaders in outreach and suicide warning signs. This year’s program involves a more holistic approach to beating the epidemic, said Walter O. Morales, chief of the Army Suicide Prevention Program.