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Suicides hamper unit readiness

Two of the leading causes of U.S. Army Reserve suicides in 2013 were due to relationship issues and problems with finances. A panel review of the 57 Army Reserve suicides that year examined many of the underlying causes and outlined a way ahead to prevent future suicide attempts. (U.S. Army photo by Timothy L. Hale/Released)

Story by Timothy Hale 

U.S. Army Reserve Command

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – As America’s Army Reserve heads into 2018, there is one topic that has a direct impact on unit readiness. Unfortunately, it is one many would prefer not to discuss. That topic is suicide among the ranks.

As uncomfortable as it may be, suicide affects not only Families but also unit readiness and morale – directly hampering the capability, combat-readiness, and lethality of America’s Army Reserve.

Officials at the U.S. Army Reserve Command, Soldier Support Division, Suicide Prevention Program, held a working group late last year to examine cases from 2016 in order to better understand the root causes and hopefully reduce the numbers in 2018.

“Although our training is great, the physiology changes it,” said William Kammerer, PhD. in Forensic Psychology and Suicide Prevention Program Manager at the 63rd Readiness Division, Los Alamitos, California. “I think we need to not only keep what we’re doing but we need to add to Suicide Prevention training with more of a Warrior Task – field-type training within the Battle Task to compensate for that higher Warrior mentality that takes over once they’re in a training environment or combat,” Kammerer said.

Joining Kammerer in the study were Jeffrey McGrady, Suicide Prevention Program Manager at the Army Reserve Aviation Command, and Jose’ Mojica, U.S. Army Reserve Command Suicide Prevention Program Manager. The trio examined 192 cases from 2013-2016 and their findings were staggering.

Of those 2016 cases, 85 percent of the suicides were planned, with 92.5 percent among the enlisted ranks. The majority were white males in the rank of sergeant (27.5 percent) with multiple enlistments (60 percent) and no deployment history (also 60 percent).

Kammerer said suicides among enlisted ranks are “moving with time” citing previous years that indicated higher numbers in the junior enlisted ranks.

“There could be exposures that certain groups have at certain points, even physiological, that could be carried throughout a specific generation,” Kammerer said. “If it comes to be a trend, the best thing a leader can do is to focus in a little more attention upon that particular group. Not that everyone in that group is going to be suicidal, but if it turns out to be a specific year group that’s coming through that has suicidal tendencies, then we need additional training for that rank structure.”

The active Army currently uses the Commander’s Risk Reduction Dashboard (CRRD) as a tool to identify Soldiers who may be at risk but the CRRD is not yet available for the U.S. Army Reserve.

“We are trying to develop that dashboard in the U.S. Army Reserve,” Mojica said. “That will help commanders identify a person that may had some issues while they were in the active component. But in the absence of that, we are recommending commanders use the Soldier-Leader Risk Reduction Tool to establish a dialogue with those Soldiers because during that interaction, something may surface that the commander can say, ‘I need to pay a little more attention to this Soldier.’”

Another fact that stood out in the 2016 cases was the use of prescription medications with 43 percent on prescription medication and of that, 23 percent were using multiple medications.

“About 40 percent of the cases had diagnosed sleep disorders,” McGrady said. “That’s pretty substantial. Then, we crossed-referenced that with other things and we found out that those with sleep disorders had elevated frequencies of other risk factors. So, sleep (or lack of sleep) seems to be related to other aspects of a Soldier’s life.

“If your sleep is not good enough, you’re more likely to have relationship problems, financial problems, or behavioral health problems. It just seems to be a common trend. If we can improve Soldiers’ sleep quality, we probably could improve other areas of their life – without over-medicating them,” McGrady said.

Ultimately, the group agreed there is more that can be done to reduce the numbers of cases among our ranks.

“The only thing we can do is to step up the training and have a lot more communication between Soldiers and their leaders,” Mojica said. “Everyone has to be more open and establish mutual trust. Soldiers need to know that if they confide in their leaders, that information will not be used against them, or have that information spread around the unit. That builds trust and as long as that trust is there, we can get that Soldier the help they may need. If that trust isn’t there, that Soldier internalizes their issues and what can happen next is that we may lose a life, eroding the readiness of that unit.”

“The key is good leadership, trust in your leadership, encourage those to come forward and say, ‘Hey, this not going to end your career,’” Mojica said.

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