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Fort Meade explores causes, prevention of suicide

A platoon of Marines sound off during a morning formation at Fort Meade on July 13, 2012.

The first suicide was jarring enough.

But when the number of self-inflicted deaths among Fort George G. Meade military personnel climbed to three, then six, officials knew there was a problem.

“We need to find some solutions,” Chad T. Jones, spokesman for Fort Meade, said last week.

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So the base’s garrison commander, Col. Edward C. Rothstein, pushed forward plans to open a center for troubled military members and emphasize the array of social programs available to those in need.

But what base officials still can’t pinpoint is a common factor in the deaths, which came as the Army reported a record number of suicides this summer.

“It would be very unfair for me to say it’s one thing or another,” Rothstein said.

He and other Fort Meade officials know this much: All those involved were under 30 years old, and most were under 25. Each was dealing with relationship struggles, financial problems, or both.

But the similarities end there.

Rothstein said one woman and five men committed suicide, and they spanned all branches of the military. Two were in the Army, two were Marines, one was in the Air Force and one was in the Navy.

Some were post-deployment, others weren’t. Some of the suicides occurred on base, others didn’t.

Rothstein said he has focused on reaching out to troubled soldiers before they take their own lives.

“This is obviously a significant issue in the Army,” Rothstein said. “Fort Meade is not the epicenter.”

And neither is the Army itself. Col. Carl Rau, Fort Meade’s installation chaplain, said Department of Defense statistics show the military as a whole had about one suicide a day until last month, when the number of suicides spiked to 38.

When something like this happens, Rau said, officials perform a “psychological autopsy” to determine trends and other factors that may be contributing to the uptick in suicide.

“Prior to August, we were mirroring the civilian population,” Rau said.

Awareness growing

At Fort Meade, it’s still unknown whether those half-dozen suicides represents an increase over previous years.

That’s not surprising, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. The organization works with friends and families of fallen soldiers, including those who have died by their own hands.

“The challenge is, every death in the military is investigated, and it can take nine months to a year before an investigation is complete,” Neiberger-Miller said. “Sometimes it’s just not clear-cut.”

Sometimes, families will contest a report that names suicide as the manner of death, putting investigators back at square one.

Families of suicide victims are often driven to find out why a loved one might have committed suicide, especially if it’s unexpected.

“That’s not something that can happen overnight,” she said.

Still, awareness of the problem is growing.

For the last four years, TAPS has held an annual gathering for families of military members who committed suicide. Last year, 350 families attended; between eight and 10 people whose loved ones have taken their lives contact TAPS weekly.

But with suicide comes a lot of shame, Neiberger-Miller said.

“We’ve had people come (to our gathering) and say, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever admitted it was a suicide,’” she said. “They’ll say, ‘We told our family we were going on vacation instead of coming here.’”

That stigma is something Fort Meade officials are working to combat.

Rau, who has been in the Army since 1988, said he has seen an increased emphasis on mental health over the years.

Locally, Fort Meade has 12 core programs aimed at assisting military families, said Doris Tyler, the base’s division chief of Army Community Services.

Many of them address issues that officials say the suicide victims faced — problems such as relationship traumas and financial woes.

“The stigma is going away,” Tyler said.

Service members, she said, cope with many of the same issues as the general population. But Fort Meade also offers post-deployment health assessments to test for post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues that can arise after a stint serving overseas.

Fort Meade has several activities planned for September, which is Suicide Prevention Month.

On Sept. 26, the base will hold a safety stand down day geared toward suicide prevention. On stand down days, the military halts normal duties and concentrates on one issue or type of training.

On Sept. 27-28, Fort Meade will hold a session of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, a periodic workshop that teaches participants how to identify suicide risks.

Rothstein first mentioned the suicides during a presentation Tuesday to the County Council, whose monthly work session coincided with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Afterward, Councilman Dick Ladd, R-Severna Park, had a simple question: What can the county do?

“The best thing we can do is have that dialogue,” Rothstein said.

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©2012 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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