Army looks for outside help to reduce suicides
By Dan Elliott
The Associated Press
DENVER — The Army's top medical officer says commanders are looking to their counterparts in the Air Force and in civilian agencies for ways to cope with an alarming increase in suicides.
"We work real closely with the Veterans Administration, who have for many years taken the lead in this," Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army's surgeon general, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "We've also looked across the services and at other models that have been more successful than our own."
The Army's suicide rate was 18.1 per 100,000 last year, the highest since the service started keeping records in 1980. It was 9.8 just five years earlier.
The U.S. civilian rate is 19.5 per 100,000.
Leading factors behind soldier suicides are troubled personal relationships; legal, financial and work problems; and repeated deployments and longer tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army says.
Schoomaker said the Army has redoubled its prevention efforts and looked outside for new models, especially to the Air Force, which he said successfully encouraged support systems to reduce suicides.
The Army's program includes removing the stigma from asking for help, encouraging soldiers to look after each other and a campaign called ACE, for Ask, Care and Escort.
"We ask that people extend themselves to a fellow soldier or family member that may be suffering," Schoomaker said. "We ask that you make the effort to ask, 'Are you in trouble?'"
Offering care may be as simple as keeping a weapon out of a troubled soldier's reach, he said. Soldiers and families should then escort the soldier to a medical facility.
Schoomaker acknowledged that encouraging troubled soldiers to ask for help requires a cultural change.
"We are an Army that has historically been associated with strength and being impervious to threats to the human psyche and the body, and of course that's a myth," he said.
He hopes to use the Army's "warrior ethos" to get soldiers to look out for one another's mental health.
"It's an extension of our warrior ethos that no soldier is ever left behind," he said.
Schoomaker said the Army will analyze individual suicides and suicide attempts, police reports and incidents of misconduct as well as the overall numbers of suicides and attempts to see if the program is working.