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House subcommittee calls for review of Special Ops suicide prevention efforts

Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U. S. Special Operations Command, speaks to airmen of the 58th Special Operations Wing during a visit to Kirtland Air Force Base on June 18, 2013.

Concerned with the increase in commandos taking their own lives, a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee is calling for the Pentagon to review Department of Defense efforts regarding suicide prevention among members of the Special Operations Forces and their dependents.

The call for a review is included in proposals by the Military Personnel Subcommittee as part of the military budget request for the fiscal year beginning in October. If the measure passes, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would have three months after passage of the budget to report the findings to the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

Earlier this month, U.S. Special Operations Command commander Adm. William McRaven told a Tampa intelligence symposium that commandos are committing suicide at a record pace this year. Though he offered no figures, he was repeating a concern he first raised in February at a Congressional hearing on his budget.

“The last two years have been the highest rate of suicides we have had in the special operations community and this year I am afraid we are on the path to break that,” McRaven said during his keynote speech to the GEOINT 2013* Symposium at the Tampa Convention Center earlier this month.

The review, according to the committee, would include whether it is feasible to apply existing Department of Defense suicide prevention policy guidelines and prevention programs to Special Operations Forces. It would also examine current armed forces and SOCOM strategies to reduce suicides among members of the Special Operations Forces and their dependents as well as the standards for responding to attempted or completed suicides, including guidance and training to assist commanders in addressing incidents of suicide, among other elements.

“The committee is concerned as you look at declines in suicide across entire force,” said committee spokesman Claude Chafin. “There are declines in general force in the rates of suicide, but the trends in the special operations community is going the other way. That is of course a deep concern.”

The call for a review is a “reaction to a concerning reality,” Chafin said. “The committee has an oversight responsibility and there are problems we need to understand. It is up to us to examine this as closely as we can to try and help the department come to a solution.”

SOCOM officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but after McRaven delivered his speech to the symposium, the command issued a statement outlining measures it is taking to respond to the increasing suicides.

SOCOM’s Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine components are complying with all of their parent services requirements and programs for suicide prevention, said spokesman Ken McGraw in an April 17 email.

Under McRaven’s Preservation of the Force and Family program, SOCOM “is responding with a holistic approach that takes into account every factor that might contribute to this challenge” including “the psychological, social, spiritual, and physical factors that are known to contribute to suicide,” McGraw said in that email.

Among other initiatives, the command created a suicide prevention working group in 2012, McGraw said, and followed that up with a Suicide Prevention Task Force in January.

The task force “is comprised of subject matter experts, clergy, behavioral health professionals, service members who have experienced suicidal ideations, spouses of service members who have committed suicide and other personnel that are closely linked to this challenge,” McGraw said. They are also looking at Pentagon, VA and civilian programs like peer-to-peer counseling and mentoring solutions, said McGraw.

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