- Rep. Jackie Speier and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan wrote to Army Sec. Christine Wormuth.
- Suicide in Alaska for the military was almost exclusively an Army problem in 2021.
- Fort Wainwright, in Alaska’s frigid interior, is the epicenter of the Army’s suicide crisis.
WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of lawmakers called on the Army to address its alarming problem of suicide in Alaska, requesting plans to improve living conditions and ensure soldiers have timely access to mental health counselors, a key finding of a USA TODAY investigation into suicide deaths there.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Alaska’s Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan wrote to Army Sec. Christine Wormuth about the Army’s suicide crisis that is responsible for the confirmed or suspected deaths of 17 soldiers in Alaska in 2021. The total, first reported by USA TODAY in January, is more than the previous two years combined.
“The epidemic of military suicides across America cries out for immediate action, especially in Alaska where twice as many service members died in 2021 compared to 2020,” Speier said in a statement. “I have spoken previously with the spouses and parents of service members who have died by suicide there, as well as other service members and behavioral health care providers overwhelmed with demand in the region.”
Speier and Sullivan plan to travel to Alaska to speak with Army leaders on efforts to save soldiers from suicide.
“It is a tragedy that the scourge of suicide disproportionately harms Alaska’s military service members and their families,” Sullivan said. “Alaska is home to thousands of military service members and more veterans per capita than any other state. But along with that proud distinction, our state also has horrifically high rates of military suicide.”
Alaska has the second highest rate of suicide in the nation, behind Wyoming, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the active duty military as a whole, the suicide rate increased from 20.3 per 100,000 troops in 2015 to 28.7 per 100,000 troops in 2020, according to the Pentagon. The military’s suicide rate is similar to that of society. However, troops are subject to far greater oversight than civilians and the Pentagon expects a lower rate, Defense officials have said.
Suicide in Alaska for the military was almost exclusively an Army problem in 2021. While there were 17 confirmed or suspected suicides among soldiers, just one airman of the 10,000 stationed there died by suicide there, according to the Air Force.
Wormuth was in Alaska Wednesday, where she met with soldiers and their families and behavioral health specialists, said her spokesperson, Lt. Col. Randee Farrell. Wormuth intends to respond directly to the members of Congress who wrote to her.
“She is very concerned about deaths by suicide and is working with the (Pentagon) to prioritize the support needed to respond to the issue in Alaska and across the Army,” Farrell said.
There are about 11,500 soldiers stationed there, most at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.
Fort Wainwright, in Alaska’s frigid interior, is the epicenter of the Army’s suicide crisis. USA TODAY spent several days there in February and had access to soldiers of all ranks who spoke openly about delays in receiving counseling. They also talked about the challenges of living in Arctic conditions of extreme cold and lack of daylight, physical isolation and problems with finances and relationships.
USA TODAY published its account April 4. The lawmakers’ letter was sent to Wormuth April 8.
“Our inquiries and conversations have made several things clear: service members stationed in Alaska are under an out-sized level of stress from several angles, including behavioral health specialist shortages, financial challenges, infrastructure and transportation limitations, and the adjustment to living in a remote location with extreme cold weather,” the lawmakers wrote to Wormuth. “The problem is especially acute at Fort Wainwright, a duty station for which many are not adequately screened or prepared.”
One soldier told the paper that he was informed that he would have to wait a month to see a counselor after nearly ending his life the night before. A Defense official involved in overseeing health programs said the soldier probably should have been seen immediately or admitted to an emergency room. The Army, in a statement, acknowledged that some soldiers in Alaska had experienced delays in receiving care.
“The behavioral health capacity at Fort Wainwright and Fort Richardson is insufficient because there are insufficient numbers of providers,” according to the lawmakers’ letter. “As it stands right now, there are 11 unfilled civilian mental health provider positions at Fort Wainwright. This has put unbearable pressure on the uniformed and civilian providers who are filling those billets, increasing the likelihood that they quit and further exacerbate the problem.”
They asked Wormuth for a plan with a timeline for sending more behavioral health counselors to Alaska and expanding counseling by video.
“We need to do everything in our power to turn this tide and be there for our service members – to get them the proper help they need so suicide is never the answer,” Murkowski said in a statement. “This includes working to ensure there are enough mental health providers to serve those who are defending our nation.”
The letter also called on Wormuth not to send soldiers with current or recent mental health issues to Alaska, or those from warm-weather locations for their first assignment to the state. The lawmakers also asked for a plan to create incentives for serving at Fort Wainwright, including reducing tours there to two years from three.
If you are a service member or veteran in crisis or having thoughts of suicide (or you know someone who is), call the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year . Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 or text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism