Fort Bliss goes 100 days without preventable death

By DAVID BURGE | El Paso Times | Published: December 20, 2012

Fort Bliss hit a major milestone Wednesday -- 100 consecutive days without a preventable soldier death.

At the same time, the post began billing itself as the safest major Army installation in the continental United States.

A preventable soldier death is one that is not related to combat, such as vehicle accidents or suicide.

This is the first time that Fort Bliss has reached the 100-day milestone since the 1st Armored Division established its headquarters here in May 2011. Similar records hadn't been kept before that time, officials said.

Eliminating unnecessary soldier deaths ties directly to combat readiness, said Maj. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for Fort Bliss.

"If a soldier is fit, healthy, resilient, a soldier will be combat effective," Buccino said. "If you see units -- and I've been in units -- that have a lot of soldiers getting in trouble, they have high rates of accidents and high rates of suicide. When those units deploy to combat, they don't do well."

In El Paso in recent years there have been some high-profile cases involving soldiers from Fort Bliss. Earlier this year, a private was shot and killed outside a Central El Paso bar, and two other soldiers were wounded in the same incident.

In 2011, there were two soldier-on-soldier homicides in El Paso. In November 2011, a master sergeant was fatally shot in her far East El Paso home by a subordinate facing disciplinary action. In February 2011, a specialist fired a 12-gauge shotgun and killed another soldier in the parking lot of the Three-Legged Monkey.

In addition, Fort Bliss has been combating soldier suicides. The post now has the lowest per-capita suicide rate in the Army, with four this year, officials said.

Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss, has been pushing a "No Preventable Deaths Campaign."

The campaign is "a multilayer, multifaceted postwide effort involving leaders, soldiers, family members, professionals, processes, procedures and policies all interacting together to achieve the campaign goal," according to a statement.

Fort Bliss has 31 stand-alone initiatives that create a safety net to help prevent unnecessary soldier deaths, Buccino said.

The Wellness Fusion Campus, which covers about 1 square mile on West Fort Bliss, helps to "coordinate and interweave" these efforts, Buccino said. This sprawling campus provides education, treatment, screenings and evaluations for soldiers, family members and civilian employees at the post.

All newly arriving soldiers, for instance, attend a two-day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST, at the Wellness Fusion Campus. This helps soldiers identify potentially suicidal behavior and prevent suicide by fellow soldiers.

The wellness campus "spearheads the suicide prevention, risk reduction and resilience campaign for the installation," said Lt. Col. Leonard Gruppo, the facility's director.

"This is the embodiment of Gen. Pittard's vision to create the most healthy, fit and resilient community in the nation," Gruppo said. "He sees Fort Bliss and El Paso as inextricably tied together."

The 100-day streak shows that Fort Bliss has made great strides, but more work needs to be done, Gruppo said.

"We will not be satisfied until the number is zero," he said.

To achieve that, it will take "engaged, intrusive leadership," Gruppo said.

"We want our leaders in everyone's business," he said.

Having "battle buddies" who look out for each other is also key, Gruppo said.

"We are promoting a culture of seeking help," Gruppo said. "Seeking help is a sign of strength."

To celebrate the 100-day milestone, Pittard has established Feb. 4, the day after the Super Bowl, as an installationwide training holiday, which is a day off for soldiers. Pittard also will create a training holiday for every additional 50 days that Fort Bliss has no preventable deaths.

David Burge may be reached at dburge@elpasotimes.com


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