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The entrance to Fort Drum, N.Y. is shown in this undated file photo.
The entrance to Fort Drum, N.Y. is shown in this undated file photo. (U.S. Army)

Three 10th Mountain Division soldiers died of apparent suicides in a two-day period this month, including one who died shortly after returning from Afghanistan where he was supporting evacuation efforts amid the U.S. military withdrawal there.

Army officials at Fort Drum, N.Y. have launched investigations into the suspected “self-harm” deaths on Sept. 16 and 17, and they do not believe the incidents were related, said Lt. Col. Josh Jacques, a 10th Mountain spokesman. Officials also do not suspect the recent deployment was “the primary reason” for the death of the soldier who had returned home from Afghanistan on Sept. 6, Jacques said.

Now the unit is working to understand why these deaths took place, he said.

Top Army officials have identified suicide prevention among their highest priorities in recent years and have taken to social media this month — September is national suicide awareness month — to encourage soldiers in crisis to seek help. But the string of deaths at Fort Drum underscores the challenges the military faces in halting suicides among troops and veterans.

“Immediately when we have a situation when a soldier is suspected of taking their own life, we want to know the trigger,” Maj. Gen. Milford H. Beagle Jr., the division’s commander, said in a statement. “What are the underlying challenges that contributed to the decision to harm themselves? We want to know what didn’t we catch? What are we missing? This is what our immediate focus is.”

The soldiers who died were assigned to different units, according to 10th Mountain Division. A 21-year-old private first class from Texas who worked as a signal support system specialist died Sept. 16. A 26-year-old specialist from Washington who worked as a cannon crewmember died Sept. 17. And a 24-year-old staff sergeant infantryman from California also died Sept. 17.

Stars and Stripes does not typically identify suspected suicide victims by name.

The staff sergeant had returned from his second deployment to Afghanistan just 11 days before his death. He had been serving with the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which deployed to Afghanistan before President Joe Biden ordered the full U.S. withdrawal from that country earlier this year. At least part of his unit had worked at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, where the United States led efforts to withdraw tens of thousands of Americans and allies from Afghanistan as the Taliban took control of the country, officials said.

While the most recent Pentagon data released earlier this year showed an overall decline in suicides among active-duty and Reserve service members, it also revealed an increase among active-duty soldiers. The Defense Department reported 45 suicides among active-duty soldiers in the first three months of 2021, up from 37 during the same time period in 2020.

Far more troops and veterans have died by suicide than in combat during the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other locations, according to a study by Brown University’s Cost of War Project published in June. It found more than 30,000 active-duty service members and military veterans had died by suicide since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, compared to about 7,000 who have been killed in the combat operations that the attacks spawned.

Beagle brought his 10th Mountain commanders together in the days after the three suspected suicides and asked them to look closely at “warning signs,” work to better understand indications of suicidal ideations, and share coping measures with their troops, the general said in statement.

“To the soldiers of Fort Drum, the 10th Mountain Division and our entire Army, I want you to know every life is worth living!” Beagle said. “Your life because you are a teammate, your life because you are Mountain Tough soldier. If you have problems, challenges or issues, there is help available from this chain of command all the way down to help you get the resources you need. Do not suffer in silence.”

He encouraged service members to reach out to their comrades and “make sure they are O.K.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs encourages veterans in crisis, or their families, to contact the Veterans Crisis Line. Dial 1-800-273-8255, and then press 1, or text the crisis line at 838255. An option to chat online is available at veteranscrisisline.net.

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