EDIT: That's all I have time to answer. Thanks for the great questions. Keep following my coverage of the Pentagon at usatoday.com

PROOF: https://i.redd.it/d0ldu55t5rr81.jpg

I'm Tom Vanden Brook, and I travelled to Fairbanks, Alaska to visit the Fort Wainwright, where an alarming rate of Army soldiers have been committing suicide. The harsh winter conditions make life there difficult, and those struggling with their mental health cannot find the proper care they need. Suicide in the military is on the rise, but the crisis is especially pertinent in Alaska. You can read the full story here: Army suicides hit alarming rate in Alaska as counseling issues persist (usatoday.com)

I have covered the Pentagon for USA TODAY since 2006. I won the 2015 Scripps Howard Award for Public Service Reporting and 2008 Finalist for Michael Kelly Award. My reporting has helped launch Pentagon's $45 billion effort to protect troops from IEDs, changed federal law to prohibit conflicts of interest among retired generals and admirals advising the Pentagon and prompted acting Defense Secretary to resign.

The Army's mistake comes as it grapples with a military suicide crisis (usatoday.com)



Comments: 175 • Responses: 18  • Date: 

voodoo6051199 karma

I was stationed there about 15 years ago. The long, dark winters and unhealthy leadership certainly wore on me as much as anyone. What, if anything, did the command seem to see as a solution?

usatoday117 karma

Lots of different solutions, voodoo. They range from sending soldiers to Wainwright who want to be in Alaska to encouraging soldiers to participate in sports and other activities to getting more counselors.

voodoo605140 karma

It’s purely anecdotal, but it certainly felt like there was a disproportionately high number of guys from Florida, California, Arizona, and other warm states. It’s a big transition for sure.

In my opinion, the culture needs to change more than anything. Respecting the lives of soldiers is something that the army often misses in a misguided effort to place readiness above all else and get officers their OER bullets.

Thank you for reporting on this. The military has treated mental health as weakness for years, and it’s time that started to change.

usatoday23 karma

Really important points. They understand that sending young people from the south to the interior of Alaska is often (though not always) a good fit. Even today, SecDef testified on Capitol Hill that the stigma of seeking help remains a big hurdle.

MissionarysDownfall52 karma

How welcoming were local brass when you stated the purpose of your trip?

usatoday80 karma

Good question, MD. They were exceptionally open. Far more so than on just about any sensitive story I've worked on.

MyLife-is-a-diceRoll60 karma

A lot of soldiers want things to be better.

usatoday56 karma

Yep. Every soldier I met feels that way.

RevenantKing42 karma

How much of what you found is related to the military rampant sexual assault problem?

usatoday63 karma

Good question. The initial tip for this story involved a young soldier who allegedly had been sexually assaulted. There is some linkage.

randal-flagg37 karma

I know that Alaska already has a very high rate of suicide so is the rate significantly higher among army personnel?

usatoday51 karma

Good point, R-F. Alaska has the nation's second-highest rate of suicide behind Wyoming. The same factors -- weather, isolation, substance abuse -- affect civilians as well as troops there.

CJ470036 karma

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s an active duty MAJ and stationed at Ft Sill. He’s been jerked around and abused and taken for granted so many times, prevented from seeing his daughters 8 hrs away during Covid restrictions, and will now spend a year in Korea that will likely end his marriage. The guy has been ravaged by Lyme disease he caught in the field in Germany and it really changed his personality, but emotionally he’s been barely hanging on for years now. I’m sure it’s worse at Wainwright, but every time I talk to him I’m reminded how thankful I am that I left active duty as a captain years ago.

The Army has been trying to address this suicide problem for almost 20 years, but the inherent conflict is the military organization will ultimately be okay getting you killed because that’s what militaries are, and I don’t think they’re capable of caring about suicide but also viewing you as a bullet catcher. Do you have any thoughts on the conflict of interests (IMO) of the military?

usatoday16 karma

CJ, I'm not sure I agree with the conflict of interest. I haven't run into leaders at any level that are that callous. But I get your point that it can be impersonal and the mission can be more important than people. Tough balance, right? It is a very difficult business. I also agree with your point about lack of progress in combating suicide in the military. The numbers bear that out, sadly. Again, overwhelmingly I've heard from soldiers who say they need more counselors and better access to them. SecDef today said he agreed. We shall see if that happens. I'll be watching. Take care of yourself and your friend.

maybeinoregon20 karma

Suicides have always been a problem in the Army. Every base I was attached to had a suicide while I was there…every single one. Can you tell me what the Pentagon is doing about the use of depleted uranium in weapons? Instead of reducing the amount used, they’ve increased it, knowing full well the health risks to armed forces members and the public. Thanks.

usatoday9 karma

There are unfortunately a number of problems in the military. It's still by far the best in the world but like every big institution, it has issues.

usatoday13 karma

Thanks for the informed questions everybody, and for reading our stories. Other duties call now. Rest assured I'll keep reporting on this. Take good care!

PurpleAntifreeze13 karma

What are your thoughts on how the military can best address this crisis?

usatoday36 karma

PA, I can tell you what I heard time and again from soldiers in Alaska: better, more timely access to mental health counselors. Beyond that, there are common complaints about unpredictable schedules that wreak havoc on family life. The constant cycle of training, deployment, reset. And repeat.

RudolftheDuck9 karma

Current military spouse with my spouse doing 2 tours at Wainwright.

Have you seen a link between the amount of time spent in the field and suicide? Additionally, I assume more were single soldiers, correct? The first time we were here my spouse was gone over half the time. The second seems to be a bit more relaxed but that is also with a different unit. I know several of the soldiers in his old unit who committed suicide but they were usually single soldiers who I didn’t ever meet, just heard their names.

usatoday12 karma

RD, the cases I'm familiar with vary a great deal. A young unmarried woman who hadn't deployed and a sergeant major with multiple deployment and a wife and children. Really heartbreaking stories.

idlerspawn5 karma

Former USARAK soldier here, what was the most surprising thing you've discovered while researching Wainwright soldiers and their mental health?

usatoday17 karma

Idler: I'd say how open the soldiers were to talking about how difficult it is to live at Wainwright. I was really surprised, and thankful, that they were willing to share really personal, difficult stories. To a one, they said they wanted to talk about the issues so the next soldier wouldn't have to deal with them.

nowyourdoingit4 karma

That 45 Billi get put to good use ya think?

Like how many servicemembers were injured by IED vs suicide?

usatoday12 karma

Can't remember the last IED death I reported, thankfully. I know about 17 deaths by suicide last year in Alaska alone.

pants67894 karma

Is one gender more prevalent?

usatoday22 karma

Yes, primarily men, but that's expected given that women are about 20% of the military.

Mostly young men.

yungbenis6662 karma

Current journalism student in Canada looking to eventually start covering geopolitics.

Where were you in your career before you started covering the pentagon? Was it hard to get access into such an “isolated” (for lack of a better term) branch of the U.S. government or were you already connected with people who work there through your past work?

usatoday3 karma

Good for you, Y! We need bright young people to cover national security issues. Lots going on, as you all know, and never enough people to report on them. I covered a million things before starting at the Pentagon, and each job served me well. I learned how to sort through records covering local, state and federal government, and gained experience talking to people from all walks of life. Gaining sources at the Pentagon is a lot like it is everywhere else: reporting on stories that are interesting and important and talking to as many people as you know more than you about the topic.

Stole_The_Show2 karma

How is the family notified when this occurs?

usatoday6 karma

Casualty officers inform the family. An incredibly difficult job. The mom of one soldier told me she received a phone call at 3 a.m.

Stole_The_Show1 karma

Aw man they do it over the phone? Rough. Thanks for the answer!

usatoday6 karma

I believe there is in-person notification as well. In the case I mentioned, the solider had lived with his wife and died by suicide at home. So his mother was notified by phone.

usatoday8 karma

On a related note, an officer does brief the family in person with the final report of the death investigation. Not surprisingly those can be very difficult conversations.