Politics & Government

In Tacoma, the Army investigating possible suicides

The Army is investigating 11 suspicious deaths among Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers so far in 2011, raising the possibility that the base could surpass its previous peak of nine suicides in a single year.

The trend is stoking concerns among officers at Lewis-McChord and Madigan Army Medical Center. They increased their behavioral health staff last year to prepare for the homecomings of 18,000 soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2009-10.

Now the base is again stepping up its suicide prevention outreach, asking soldiers to look for signs of depression or stress among peers.

It’s expected to release a new suicide prevention program for the base by the end of this month.

“We take this very seriously and we’re committed to making sure our soldiers and their families have the best care available,” said Army I Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield.

Nine Lewis-McChord soldiers killed themselves in each of the years 2010 and 2009, up from seven in 2008.

Lewis-McChord officials this week told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that nine soldiers had killed themselves this year. Dangerfield declined to confirm that number, instead saying 11 deaths with undetermined causes were under investigation.

"Every single suicide of one of our heroes is a tragedy that should reverberate through every effort made to stem the tide of this epidemic," Murray said. "The string of suicides around JBLM shouldn't be a wake up call to anyone, it should be a stark reminder that despite the military's recent strides, their work has just begun."

News of potentially rising suicides at Lewis-McChord follows an Army report last week that showed more soldiers took their lives in July than in any previous month over the past two years. It was a setback after the Army reported that active-duty suicides had declined in 2010 for the first time since 2005.

“We absolutely recognize there is much work to be done and remain committed to ensuring our people are cared for and have ready access to the best possible programs and services,” said Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli.

All totaled, the Army is investigating 98 potential suicides among active-duty soldiers this year and an additional 53 potential suicides among Reserve soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Washington National Guard has reported two soldier suicides so far this year, up from zero in 2010. Seven Washington guardsmen killed themselves in 2009, the year that roughly 2,400 of them returned from Iraq.

The 2011 number is “two too many,” said Washington National Guard spokesman Capt. Keith Kosik. The Guard has its own outreach programs to its service members accentuating themes similar to the ones active-duty soldiers see.

Vicki Duffy, Lewis-McChord’s suicide prevention program manager, said military studies suggest it makes sense for Lewis-McChord soldiers to start showing signs of psychological distress this year.

Most came home between May and September of 2010. They now are settled back at home and thinking about future deployments and personal or family challenges at home.

“You can imagine that soldiers who have issues they didn’t deal with from the last deployment - and then they have pending orders for another deployment - you can imagine that it would add another layer of stressors,” she said.

Duffy said Lewis-McChord is not seeing a pattern of suicides among specific units. Most have occurred quietly on or around the base.

One took place publicly in April when Sgt. David Stewart of Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Medical Brigade killed himself and his wife after a highway chase on Interstate 5 in Thurston County. The Army is working on its investigations into his deaths.

Duffy arrived at Lewis-McChord in July, moving from a similar position in Germany. She said the base south of Tacoma has one of the largest staffs of behavioral health professionals in the Army and a command climate that encourages officers to report signs of distress.

The suicide prevention program set to be released this month lilkely will focus on coordinating efforts among top commanders, psychologists and ground-level units.

It also could start to deliver a new message to soldiers, encouraging ways to live a balanced life instead of focusing only on mental illness.

“A lot of the banners say, ‘If you’re depressed seek help,’” Duffy said, “instead of saying something like that, you can say, ‘Hey, when was the last time you relaxed?’”

Lewis-McChord service members or military families seeking help for emotional distress are asked to call Military One Source at 800-342-9647.