National Guard leaders offer no new solution to stem forced suicides
Governor Tony Evers is pledging to invest federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to fight suicides in the Wisconsin National Guard and expand mental health services for its members.
âIt is clear that our members of the Guard need the extra help and support that cannot wait for the enactment of the next biennial budget,â said Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback.
The engagement follows a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel survey last month, which exposed flaws in the way the Guard handles suicides, including four of those deaths in a recent five-month span in Wisconsin.
The state has received more than $ 5 billion in federal COVID relief money, that Evers, the commander-in-chief of the Wisconsin Guard, has broad discretion. The Evers spokeswoman last week gave no further details about the governor’s plan, including how much, what services he would specifically fund and when the investments would be made.
But beyond Evers’ promise of more money, other heads of the National and State Guard are offering no new measures to stem the problem of suicide.
âThe Guards did not contact us in any way. It’s hard to express, âsaid Linda Collison, whose son Logan was one of the Wisconsin Army guards who committed suicide earlier this year. “It makes me feel exactly what Logan said, ‘that they don’t care about us.'”
When Journal Sentinel contacted Major General Daniel Hokanson, head of the National Guard Bureau, which oversees but does not regulate state units, last month, provided no new solution. He said the soldiers themselves should take steps to resolve their mental issues.
âIt could be reaching out to your leaders, your chaplain, your health care provider or your family – or everyone else! – if you’re having trouble, âHokanson said in a statement. It doesn’t matter which steps you take first, it just matters that you take them. “
In recent months, the Guard Bureau has declined to comment further on any new strategy it may pursue and has said the lack of funding is a continuing obstacle. Wisconsin National Guard chief Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp also offered no new measures.
The Journal Sentinel investigation recounted how four Wisconsin guardsmen died by suicide in 2020 and early 2021 after serving in Afghanistan. He revealed that as the state and country increasingly rely on the Guard, leaders have failed to provide more comprehensive mental health care to troops to stem its suicide rate.
Lawmakers cut funding for expanded mental health services
State lawmakers cut funding from Evers’ budget proposal earlier this year to expand the Guard’s mental health program and hire more staff.
Republicans who control the state budget committee that cut the funding, including Rep. Mark Born, Senator Dale Kooyenga, Senator Howard Marklein, did not answer questions about the decision or the recent suicides of the Keep.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu of Oostburg, the Republican leaders who control the legislation, are also reportedly not answering questions about what they plan to do, the case appropriate, to prevent future deaths in Wisconsin custody.
Former Republican Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who is running to replace Evers in 2022, said the Journal Sentinel investigation clearly shows that additional funding to connect the Guard to mental health services is needed, but it doesn’t did not provide details on what she would do specifically to address the issue if elected.
Despite the historically high number of Wisconsin Guard missions over the past two years, Kleefisch wants to activate more troops, sending them to the Mexican border to monitor undocumented migrants.
“If the federal government doesn’t help, we will,” she said in a statement. âI saw the crisis on the southern border with my own eyes; it is important that we favor the use of the guard for security issues and that we do not use them. as a temporary dressing for all our problems. “
Yet Guard experts and the families of deceased soldiers say that is exactly what is happening – and that the Guard is increasingly being used as a political tool.
âThe guard can’t do everything all the time,â said John Goheen, director of communications for the National Guard Association of the United States, a national lobbying group that is pushing forward a bill in Congress to expand free access. health care for all members of the guard. âWhen you start talking to Chiefs of the Guard, adjutant generals across the country, they express their concern that the Guard cannot become every governor’s ‘easy button’. “
The National Guard, made up of 54 separate militias in each state and territory, is meant to be a part-time force, rarely used as a last resort for states facing emergencies. But members of the National Guard continue to supplement full-time forces overseas and serve in the United States in a variety of non-military jobs, including staffing nursing homes, driving school buses. and in Wisconsin, staffing psychiatric establishments as low-level nursing assistants.
âGovernors view Guard personnel as versatile tools, collapsible instruments that can be reconfigured to accommodate any emergency or need,â said Dwight Stirling, a National Guard systems expert, who teaches the law to the University of Southern California and serves in the California National Guard. âA psychological breaking point can be reached when they are overused. Indeed, the increase in mental health issues in the Guard is proof that we are getting dangerously close to that line. “
Unlike full-time military forces, the Guard does not receive free medical coverage through the Veterans Administration and must rely on a patchwork of programs.
“We are putting people on the front lines of the worst pandemic in a century without health coverage,” said Goheen, lobbyist for the National Guard Association. “This nation is not giving its guards and reservists medical coverage. We are not providing it. I think that would shock a lot of people.”
Meanwhile, Linda Collison and other guard families who have lost loved ones to suicide, are eager to see changes that prevent more deaths.
âThese last-resort helpers have nowhere to turn when they need help themselves,â Collison said.
Katelyn Ferral is an investigative reporter for the Sentinel Journal. Email him at [email protected]