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SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Faced with a sailor suicide rate that has doubled in the Pacific since last year, Navy officials are taking steps to prevent sailors from taking their own lives.

By educating sailors on traits exhibited by those with suicidal thoughts, and by implementing the Adopt-a-Sailor and Adopt-a-Sailor-Plus programs, Navy officials say they hope to reverse the trend.

According to an unclassified memo from Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Walter F. Doran obtained Thursday by Stars and Stripes, to date 16 Pacific Fleet sailors have committed suicide in 2003 — double the number of 2002.

Navywide, 42 sailors killed themselves last year, the memo said.

Doran’s memo called the statistics “significant,” meriting “immediate attention and action.”

“Some sailors feel overwhelmed but will not seek help or assistance,” the memo stated. “Often issues that can be resolved spin out of control, leading to depression, adjustment difficulties, relationship problems and sometimes suicide.”

Cmdr. Harvey Ranard, Sasebo Command chaplain, said such problems can intensify during the holidays, especially among single sailors alone and far from home.

That’s where the Adopt-a-Sailor and Adopt-a-Sailor-Plus programs come in.

In Sasebo, 25 unaccompanied sailors have registered for the Adopt-a-Sailor program through the base’s Religious Ministries Department.

The program matches single sailors with local families for the holidays — and all 25 are being hosted by local families this holiday season, said Ranard, a Navy chaplain since 1985.

“I was very pleased to see how many and how quickly the families volunteered,” he said. “Taking in one or two sailors is great but I was surprised to see how many were willing to take in four, five, even six if there was a need.”

Base commander Capt. Michael James says he’d like to see the family sponsorship continue year-round.

That’s where Adopt-a-Sailor-Plus fits in.

The program, slated to be in place by next Thanksgiving, would get sailors and families to sign an agreement for regular interaction during a 12-month period.

Meanwhile, the Navy is educating sailors on signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.

In November, the Navy and Defense Department hosted a suicide prevention conference to educate sailors and develop other suicide prevention programs, including identifying suicide prevention coordinators.

“Losing a sailor is a tragic loss to the Navy family,” Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Gerry Hoewing was quoted as saying during the conference. “Losing a sailor through suicide is an even more tragic loss and one that we as a Navy community are working hard to prevent.”

During the conference, sailors were told they need to watch out for shipmates.

Ranard picked up that theme during suicide prevention training last week.

“There is no one in a better position to notice than you,” he said. “There is no better way to care for your own than to practice suicide prevention awareness.”

Ranard told sailors they shouldn’t shield someone who shows signs of suicidal thoughts, or of suffering from severe, seemingly unending emotional pain. An overall sense of disappointment in personal relationships, or feeling trapped in negative situations, sometimes can lead to suicide, officials said.

Sailors should approach shipmates who exhibit changes in behavior, said Cmdr. Kevin Kennedy, Navy Suicide Prevention Program manager with the Behavorial Health unit at the Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tenn.

“Ask them if there’s a problem. If you know there’s a problem causing them distress, ask them if they’re considering suicide,” Kennedy said. “You are the first line of defense.”

Warning signs

Here are some clues officials say people thinking about suicide often exhibit:

• Drastic or quick changes in mood or behavior.• Alcohol or drug abuse.• Talk of death, even veiled in a discussion.• Making sudden “arrangements,” such as selling possessions, buying additional insurance or closing accounts.• Becoming suddenly “all better” and reporting that they feel great.• Eating and sleeping pattern changes.• Negative outlook expressed on just about everything.

— Stars and Stripes

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