Review of suicide among troops to focus on army bases in Alaska, South Korea

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Maj. Gen. Bryan Eifler, commander of U.S. Army Alaska, speaks at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Feb. 25, 2022, during a media roundtable on steps Alaska is taking to prevent suicides of soldiers. (Justin Wynn/US Air Force)

An independent review commissioned this week by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will seek ideas to stem the rising number of suicides among soldiers stationed in Alaska and South Korea, as well as some installations in the United States.

The review panel is expected to begin work in May with a report expected before the end of the year, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Committee members will “visit several facilities here at home and abroad,” he said.

The review, as ordered Tuesday in a memo from Austin that outlined its parameters, includes three facilities in Alaska: Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

Camp Humphreys in South Korea, home to thousands of American troops, is the only overseas base the committee members will visit.

Also included in the review are Fort Campbell, Ky.; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada; Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.; and the North Carolina National Guard.

A growing number of suicides has plagued the military in Alaska since 2019, with a dramatic jump in 2021.

Seven soldiers died by suicide in the state in 2020, and last year that number rose to 11 – a figure that does not include the six soldier deaths still under investigation.

The commander of the US Army in Alaska told reporters on a conference call last month that he has mandated wellness checks with behavioral health counselors for 100% of soldiers under his command.

Kirby told reporters that 580 service members died by suicide in 2020, a tally that includes Reserve and National Guard troops. Full data for 2021 likely won’t be available until this fall, but Austin “is not interested in waiting for 2021 data,” Kirby said.

“He’s seen enough to know that we need to do something different, that we need to try to take additional and more creative steps here.”

Austin was in Fairbanks last summer, where, among other topics, he spoke with troops and commanders “about the mental health and suicide challenges that go with it,” Kirby said.

Austin also had discussions with mental health experts in Alaska, who “walked him through some of the complexities that they saw” when it came to suicide and its prevention, Kirby said.

Austin came out of the talks with a firmer understanding that tackling the stigma among troops about seeking help for mental health issues is a key to reducing suicides, he said.

A significant number of military suicides involve the use of a firearm, Kirby said.

Austin wants to “work with commanders on home or base gun storage and make sure we have that on hand,” he said.

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