Base’s civilians to help with troubled soldiers
January 25, 2010
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Civilians working on base in places such as bars and bowling alleys will soon get training to help them identify troubled soldiers as the community tries to cut the number of suicides in the ranks.
At U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr, there’s been a spate of recent suicides — including several members of the 172nd Infantry Brigade, which returned from a yearlong mission to Iraq last year, according to the garrison commander, Col. Nils "Chris" Sorenson.
The community is home to more than 27,000 soldiers, civilians and family members.
Army-wide, more than 140 soldiers committed suicide in 2009, the most ever in one year. Eight of the deaths and two suspected suicides happened in Europe, U.S. Army Europe spokesman Mark Ray said in an e-mail.
In an effort to stem the tide, the Army held a suicide "stand-down" last year, with briefings for soldiers and Department of the Army civilians. It also established a suicide prevention task force, and mandated suicide-intervention training, which involved troops watching interactive videos.
However, the initiatives appear to have had little impact, and the garrison has decided to take an aggressive, communitywide approach, Sorenson said.
"We saw it and we said, ‘no more,’" he said. "We are going to change the culture in the Grafenwöhr community to where it is OK to seek assistance."
Although the Army has not mandated it, Sorenson says employees at on-post recreational facilities such as bars, bowling alleys and United Service Organizations clubs will get training to deal with suicidal soldiers.
The suicide-intervention programs advise workers to ask soldiers directly if they are thinking about suicide, to remove any means that could be used for self-harm and to escort potentially suicidal soldiers to either their chain of command, a chaplain, a behavioral health professional or a primary care provider, according to Lt. Col. Jim Hartz, deputy garrison chaplain.
The suicide-prevention task force includes military personnel, chaplains, behavioral health workers, military police, legal staff, social workers and substance abuse counselors, Sorenson said. The task force met numerous times last quarter and has established media campaigns, workshops, conferences, public events and even surveyed soldiers who have recently returned from deployment to find out about underlying issues related to suicide.
"We have not waited for programs to come our way," he said. "We are developing them ourselves. We can’t afford to wait until somebody serves us up a turn-key program."
One initiative that the task force is planning to bring to Grafenwöhr is a two-person Broadway-style play — "Theater of War" — funded by the Defense Center of Excellence, Sorenson said.
"It is an interactive performance that gets to identifying and understanding behavioral health issues in such a way that people start changing their behavior. It is designed for reintegrating units. We think this great idea will be expandable to USAREUR," he said.
The garrison is also planning public speakers who will talk to troops about behavioral health issues, Hartz said.
"They will talk about the impact that operations that soldiers experience will have on them and their lives," he said.
In the media campaign, the garrison is working to highlight as "courageous" those soldiers who have sought help and to identify soldiers who have intervened and prevented a potential suicide, he said.
"We want to remove the stigma (of behavioral health problems)," Sorenson said. "We are going to do everything we can to train and educate and change our culture to where people accept that behavioral health issues must be addressed and it is OK to talk about it."