General Peter Chiarelli Discusses the 2010 Army Suicide Rates
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, center, talks with reporters at the Pentagon, Jan. 19, 2011, about newly released statistics on Army suicides for last year. Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, left, and Army National Guard Acting Director Maj. Gen. Raymond W. Carpenter, right, joined Chiarelli. DOD photo by R. D. Ward.
On Tuesday, January 18th in Washington, DC, the Army-Navy Club hosted a Suicide Forum with Gen. Peter Chiarelli to discuss the most recent suicide rates for the Army. The forum audience members were privy to the numbers several hours before Chiarelli’s presentation at the Pentagon, and the key dynamic in the conversation was this: while the overall number of active duty Army suicides decreased slightly in 2010,* the National Guard and Reserve suicides significantly increased, almost doubling from 80 deaths in 2009 to 145 deaths in 2010.
What’s the missing link between active duty, and the National Guard and Reserve? The Army has focused on its active duty service members’ mental and behavioral health with targeted programming. Additionally, when they return home from deployments, they return to base, to a military community that is dealing with some of the reintegration issues of the invisible wounds of war, of post traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) that their neighbor on base can relate to. Unfortunately, the Army has focused less attention on reducing the suicide rates among reserve troops. "We know we have a problem that we didn't recognize before," Chiarelli said, and speculated that the economy, joblessness and relationship issues might be a component of the problem. Also, geographically dispersed National Guard and Reserve service members may not get the mental health treatment they need.
What was clear to me at the Army-Navy Club discussion was two-fold: that Gen. Chiarelli is very passionate about the suicide issu, and that he understands the Army’s failure to truly deal with National Guard and Reserve soldiers. “We put our arms around active duty soldiers returning from deployments but how do we handle our National Guard members and reservists? They go back into their communities and we need to ensure they get the same care. They make up half of the Army.” He is right. The National Guard and Reserve service members have been dealing with the brunt of these 10 year conflicts along with their active duty brothers and sisters. So, what’s the path to some solutions?
First, according to Chiarelli, one must understand that the physiology of the brain is dynamic and an enigma. While we understand much of its functionality, there is so much more about the brain that we do not comprehend. He stated that “the science of the brain is very, very immature.” Second, one must comprehensively examine PTS and TBI to fully grasp the nature of military suicides: how a soldier deals with these invisible wounds of war is indicative of his or her propensity to take their own life. It’s interesting to note that Chiarelli will not say PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. “Disorder is a bad word; post traumatic stress is a true injury.” My husband has PTS and mild TBI (mTBI) and loves Chiarelli’s preferred name; in fact he has been saying the same thing for a few years now. I am certain that this transformative mind shift has helped him mentally and continues to heal him through his recovery. In addition, it was suggested that high risk deaths be examined. What if a soldier gets drunk while he is on meds, gets in his car, and drives into a wall? This is ruled as a high risk death, but is it really? The Army has only been capturing broad suicide data for three years; however, this notion of high risk death adds another dimension to the conversation.
Finally, Chiarelli wants the Army to address the PTS and TBI stigma: he stresses that we have to address the Army culture surrounding PTS and TBI and get commanders – active, Reserve, and National Guard -- to tell their soldiers that it’s okay to seek treatment, and to make sure that they do it.
For the past few weeks, Blue Star Families has been working with its partners to shine a light on the problem of military suicides by filming two public service announcements. Please check back with us on Facebook, Twitter, and our web site for further information on PSA release dates and show times.
* But including civilians working for the Army, family members, and soldiers who weren't on active duty when they committed suicide, the figure was 343, or 69 more than in 2009.