Joint Base Lewis-McChord suicides hit grim milestone in 2011 – most ever

From the Tacoma News-Tribune, December 30, 2011

Joint Base Lewis-McChord passed an unwelcome milestone in 2011, recording more soldier suicides than in any previous year.

Twelve soldiers took their own lives in 2011, up from nine in 2010 and nine in 2009, Army I Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield said. The total could grow as the Army completes investigations ahead of its annual suicide report next month.

The toll at Lewis-McChord rose despite new efforts to counsel soldiers when they come home from war, including the creation of a suicide-prevention office.

Lewis-McChord leaders plan to apply what they learned from those programs to help soldiers cope with stress at home and in their work. “We take suicide very seriously,” Dangerfield said. “We’re going to continue to push the envelope to make sure soldiers get the resiliency training they need.”

Lewis-McChord’s surge in suicides followed its busiest year of combat deployments. More than 18,000 soldiers from the base served in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009-10.

The base is also larger than ever, with some 34,000 soldiers stationed there, up from 19,000 before the war in Iraq started.

Leaders at the base established plans to help soldiers readjust to stateside life as major homecomings took place in the summer of 2010. In early 2011, Madigan Army Medical Center reported a rising number of soldiers and military family members seeking behavioral health services, a trend officers interpreted as a sign that people were becoming more open about asking for help.

Five soldiers reportedly killed themselves in July alone, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called it “a stark reminder that despite the military’s recent strides, their work has just begun.”

The spike in suicides is consistent with an Armywide trend that has seen more soldiers taking their own lives since 2005. The Army’s 2010 study on the causes of soldier suicide found complicated answers. Some victims were troubled by combat; others seemed stressed by relationship and financial challenges.That same mix of anxieties continues to appear in the internal investigations the Army conducts after each suicide, according to reports obtained by The News Tribune.

The most public suicide involving a Lewis-McChord soldier this year took place in April, when medic Sgt. David Stewart killed himself and his wife on Interstate 5 south of Tumwater. Their son was later found dead in their Spanaway home.

Outside the base, anti-war advocates and veterans have been calling for changes in how the Army addresses suicides. They’ve been urging more frequent personal contacts and better training so unit leaders can pay attention to troubled soldiers.

Former Staff Sgt. Andrew Byrnes served with a Lewis-McChord soldier who killed himself in October. Byrnes believes the effort would have been better spent fighting the stigma of seeking behavioral health services and giving soldiers individual attention.“

The lack of support in the ranks is what really makes guys feel secluded,” said Byrnes, 26. “They’re cut off.”