The Pentagon has commissioned a new independent commission to review suicides at three bases in Alaska, where a surge in the number of soldiers who have taken their lives has alarmed military leaders.
The commission will also investigate suicides at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and Camp Humphreys, South Korea, the largest U.S. military base abroad, as well as the North Carolina National Guard and two other facilities, said a memo sent by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Tuesday.
Congress mandated a panel outside the military leadership to examine the ongoing suicide problem as part of the annual Defense Authorization Bill. Austin said he expects commissioners who have not yet been selected to begin visiting bases by August and reporting to lawmakers on what could be done to reduce deaths in the early months of 2023.
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“We want them to be ruthlessly honest with us about what they find,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.
Austin visited Fairbanks, Alaska last year and spoke with local mental health experts about the causes of suicide. At least 11 soldiers have died by suicide in the past year and six cases are still under investigation – and the numbers have been rising since 2018.
In 2020, according to the Pentagon, 580 military personnel, including those in the National Guard and reserves, committed suicide. More recent data have not yet been published.
Austin “has seen enough based on the 2020 data and then the anecdotal reports coming in throughout 2021,” Kirby said. “He’s seen enough to know that we need to do something differently, that we need to try and take additional and more creative action here.”
Military leaders in Alaska have urged the Pentagon to fund more money for mental health, upgrade fitness facilities, allow soldiers early discharge, and have even tried to issue vitamin D, which is deficient in people living in colder climates with less daily sunlight can be.
The new commission will investigate the Alaskan suicides at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright.
It will have at least five members who likely have mental health experience but are not currently in the military or working in the Department of Defense. They will be named by Gil Cisneros, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, within the next two months.
The list of the first bases visited could be extended. It now also includes Naval Air Station North Island, California, and Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
The causes of suicide in Alaska — and elsewhere in the military — and how to reduce the number have remained elusive. Overall, military suicide deaths increased dramatically in the fourth quarter of 2020. The military reported 156 deaths, up 25% from the 125 deaths recorded in the last quarter of 2019.
Kirby called it a very complex problem, and that Austin has recently focused on breaking down the remaining stigma surrounding mental health issues and gun safety as key aspects of suicide prevention.
“There is a significant number of shooting-related suicides in the military, personal firearms, and one of the things he wants to do is work with commanders to keep firearms at home or on base and make sure that we have it well in hand,” Kirby said.
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