The Washington National Guard is seeing mixed results from an “all hands” effort to halt service member suicides, military leaders told state lawmakers in a briefing Wednesday.
The number of suicides among Washington Army and Air Guard service members increased from 0 in 2010 to four so far this year. Seven Washington National Guard soldiers took their own lives in 2009.
But leaders are taking heart in multiple successful suicide interventions that they attribute to enhanced awareness about behavioral health concerns in the military.
“These efforts are saving lives,” Washington National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg said. “We have effectively intervened and prevented suicides form occurring because of this all-hands engagement.”
The saved lives in 2011 include a senior officer who posted on Facebook that he was ready to kill himself. Fellow service members spotted his plea and helped law enforcement officers find him before he could act.
In another case, the Guard learned of a suicide pact among three ROTC cadets. Two took their own lives, but a third was saved, said the Washington National Guard’s Tom Riggs. Riggs oversees transition programs for the state Military Department.
The cadet “had his entire life ahead of him,” Riggs said. He did not provide more information describing when or where the pact was discovered.
Riggs and Lowenberg are highlighting the successful interventions to show service members that they can “make a difference” in preventing suicides. That can be a difficult notion to embrace despite the attention the Defense Department has paid to soldier suicides since 2009, when the rate of soldiers taking their own lives surpassed the rate of civilian suicides.
“Part of the warrior ethos is we would never leave a comrade on the battlefield,” Riggs said. “There’s a battlefield at home. If it’s not acceptable to leave someone in combat, it’s not acceptable to leave them at home.”
The Army saw a spike in suicides among National Guard last year, when 101 citizen soldiers took their own lives. Forty-eight guardsmen killed themselves in 2009.
The peak year of Washington National Guard suicides followed a yearlong deployment to Iraq for the 2,400 soldiers in the 81st Brigade Combat Team, which came home in August 2009.
Lowenberg cited Army studies that show multiple factors usually contribute to a soldier’s decision to take his life, such as relationship stress and financial trouble.
Combat is not necessarily a deciding factor given that young soldiers who have not deployed are as likely to consider suicide as veterans, Lowenberg said.
“Our belief that everyone is at risk of suicide,” Riggs said. “We can’t use any kind of a crystal ball to say this person has more propensity than another person.”