Army commander seeks to normalize mental health care amid spate of soldier suicides
The Army confirmed that 11 Alaska-based soldiers died by suicide in 2021. Six of the soldiers were based at Ft. Wainwright, and five were at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. The deaths of six other Alaskan soldiers, five of whom were Ft. Wainwright, are under investigation.
This compares to seven suicide deaths in 2020 and eight in 2019.
Speaking to reporters, US Army Alaska Commander Major General Brian Eifler said suicide prevention was his number one priority.
“We have a lot of things going on in the world right now. We have to pay attention to a lot of things, but that’s what hurts our soldiers, so we have to understand that,” he said.
ft. Wainwright has one of the highest suicide rates among US military positions. And while military suicides have increased nationwide in recent years, Eifler said Alaska’s extreme environment can magnify mental health issues.
“So maybe a little problem in the Lower 48 would be a big problem here,” he said.
Eifler reflected on a 2019 Ft. Wainwright Suicide Study that resulted in mental health and quality of life initiatives, including more than $200 million in facility upgrades.
“Obviously and tragically we still have a long way to go,” he said.
Eifler focused on a list of suicide prevention measures, including a campaign to better connect soldiers.
“Leaders connected with soldiers and soldiers connected with each other. Leaders contact one hundred percent the spouse or next of kin of our soldier. One hundred percent of our soldiers will receive a health check from the behavioral health or the military family life counselor,” he said.
Eifler said many deaths occur during a soldier’s first year in the state. He highlighted a new climate in the military that encourages reaching out.
“Every week, every week, people show up and say hello, first sergeant, I’m really fighting here, and here’s my gun, take my gun away. I need help,” he said.
Eifler said the goal was to normalize mental health care in the ranks. He also pointed to a new initiative to identify suitable soldiers for Alaska and bring and keep them here.