50 Joint Base Lewis-McChord suicides since 2002

Mar 2, 2011

Fifty soldiers from Joint Base Lewis McChord have killed themselves since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some committed suicide on-base, others off and still others while deployed overseas.  Leaders at JBLM say they’ve dramatically stepped up efforts to combat suicide. But they admit it’s not easy to change Army culture.

In an old barracks at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a video shoot is underway.

Soft lights and opaque backgrounds set the scene for emotional first-person interviews about suicide.

This is part of an Army suicide prevention campaign called “Shoulder to Shoulder.” In a previous video, Specialist Joseph Sanders describes putting his rifle to his chin and pulling the trigger:

“When nothing happened I immediately went into soldier mode. And I broke down my rifle really fast to find out why it did not fire. I pulled it apart and found that my firing pin was not in there.”

It turns out his friend had removed the firing pin as a precaution. Kristin Westbrook directs the “Shoulder to Shoulder” videos. She says the goal is to produce something that even tough-guy soldiers won’t laugh at:

“There can be no giggle factor.”

The videos have a shot-on-film quality and the interview subjects are real people – no actors here.

“It has to resonate, it has to be credible. We hope that that will capture the attention maybe get rid of the stigma,” says Westbrook.

The stigma that in the Army - where the motto is “Army Strong” - mental health issues are a sign of weakness. The videos are just one piece of an Army-wide effort to combat an alarming trend. Since 2005, the Army’s suicide rate doubled and is now higher than that of the civilian population.

Lack of Trust in Mental Health Care

In raw numbers, 2009 was a record year for the Army with 162 active-duty suicides. Last year that number dipped to 156. But at the same time the Army issued a troubling report. It concluded soldiers simply don’t trust the mental health system. And there’s another problem says Walter Morales who runs the Army’s suicide prevention program at the Pentagon. He admits sometimes soldiers get the wrong message:

“I still see more than I care to see where we as leaders are not doing the right things for those who are seeking help and we have to treat everybody with dignity and respect instead of ostracizing, humiliating somebody for coming forward and saying I need help.”

At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Col. James Terrio, the Corps Surgeon, is the man in charge of trying to change the culture:

“To show soldiers that it’s a strength to seek help and not a weakness and that is a very strong message the command is pushing down to junior leadership.”

Sitting next to Colonel Terrio is Steven Kosylo. He’s a former Army chaplain who now heads JBLM’s Suicide Prevention Program. He too preaches the need to change Army culture. He describes a two-day workshop on how to rescue someone who’s caught in what he calls the “river of suicide”:

“We’re teaching people some human skills in that class and saying ‘no matter what you are it’s all hooah and ya we’re all tough guys over here but you know what sometimes you gotta go check on your buddy and you gotta ask him some of these questions.’”

Specialist Ryan Eddy is a twenty-one year old soldier based at JBLM. He says his leaders tell them it’s good to get help. But despite that sign of a cultural shift, in his experience you still pay a price:

“It feels like I’m kind of being punished for it.”

Specialist Eddy has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Speaking by cell phone, he says because of the diagnosis the Army’s taken away his M-4 rifle away for 90-days:

“Now it seems like they think that I’m failing the rest of the squad and the rest of the platoon because I can’t use my weapon.”

Eddy survived a brutal year-long deployment to Afghanistan last year with the 5th Stryker Brigade. There’s no doubt the Army’s spiking suicide rate is related to the fact America’s been at war for a decade. But Walter Morales, the Army’s suicide prevention officer, says there’s a myth about that:

“And the myth is that suicides occur because of deployments.”

Morales says it’s more complicated. Deployments exacerbate other issues that are leading causes of suicide: relationship problems, financial stress. Morales says even brutal deployments are not a key indicator for suicide:

“Seeing dead bodies and being blown up and that’s why people are killing themselves? And the answer is no.”

Making More Help Available

At Joint Base Lewis McChord, nearly 18,000 soldiers have returned from war since last spring – an influx not seen since Vietnam. Col. James Terrio says compared to even a few years ago there are more resources available: more frequent mental health questionnaires, counselors meet with platoons more often. But Col. Terrio says no matter how many resources the Army throws at this problem it’s a two-way street:

“If the soldier doesn’t want to do it then it’s going to be very difficult to get them to that care.”

The stakes are high. Last year, nine soldiers from the base killed themselves. The same number as the previous year. Asked how the current transition home for so many war-weary soldiers is going, Col. Terrio knocks on wood:

“I think things are going well.”

So far this year, Joint Base Lewis-McChord reports there have been no suicides. But he knows problems often don’t arise until months after a deployment ends.

U.S. Military suicide prevention resources are available on the web.