Secretary of the Army John McHugh visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord Monday. Photo by Peter Haley/The News Tribune.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh on Monday launched an initiative to promote life skills in military families, seeking to streamline and advertise behavioral health resources so soldiers know where to turn in moments of need.
He signed a memorandum at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Monday steering more resources to so-called “resiliency” programs, which the Army uses to promote overall health among soldiers and their families.
They’re one component of the Army’s push to reverse a disturbing rise in soldier suicides over the past eight years. Last year, 182 active-duty solders killed themselves, up from 165 in 2011.
His new guidance calls on the Army to “embed” resiliency counselors within units, develop programs to encourage healthy lifestyles and synchronize resources so troubled soldiers can turn to a “one stop shop” for help. Those concepts generally are already in place at Lewis-McChord.
“Taking care of soldiers, it’s not just something that we feel is important operationally. It is something that we feel is a moral imperative,” he said.
The Army promoted McHugh’s visit as a bookend to his last trip to the base in April, when he announced the creation of a new division-level headquarters at the base that would focus on training and supervision of its main combat units.
At that time, the base faced national scrutiny both because of allegations that one of its soldiers massacred 16 Afghan civilians during his deployment to Kandahar province that spring and because of a sprawling investigation into behavioral health diagnoses at its hospital that suggested soldiers were being denied certain benefits.
Now, the 7th Infantry Division is up and running at Lewis-McChord overseeing more than 20,000 soldiers.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the soldier accused of slaughtering the Afghans, is awaiting a death-penalty court-martial.
And, the Army resolved the behavioral health inquiry at Madigan Army Medical Center by ending the widespread use of a forensic psychiatry team at the center of the investigation. Its doctors had the final say on behavioral health diagnoses, and they sometimes changed diagnoses in such a way that patients lost benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder. The Army has since diagnosed 150 patients who moved through Madigan with PTSD.
McHugh said the Madigan behavioral health investigations contributed to a broader review of Army PTSD diagnoses and programs. Both the local Madigan report and the nationwide Army Behavioral Health Task Force investigation are complete, but McHugh would not discuss them in detail or release them to reporters.
“Justice was done,” he said, referring to the Madigan investigation. ”We learned some lessons and it was my intent to carry forward the lessons we learned to the entire force.”
He said the Army-wide review generated 24 findings and 47 recommendations that he would work to implement. He would not describe them, except for one that called on the Army to put its cottage industry of behavioral programs under one command.
“Because of the big Army’s efforts to construct program after program in response to these challenges, the commanders are confused,” he said.
The News Tribune, The Seattle Times and public radio station KUOW have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the Madigan investigations. The Army has denied them, calling the reports “predecisional” because of the ongoing work of the behavioral health task McHugh described. The newspapers and the radio station have appealed that characterization.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who carried the complaints about Madigan’s forensic psychiatry program to the highest levels of the Pentagon, on Monday spoke with McHugh about the task force report and urged him to put it into action.
“We cannot ever have a repeat of what happened at JBLM. We cannot allow those who have served or their loved ones to be dragged through a system that leaves them with more questions than answers,” she said in a written news release.
Lewis-McChord in recent years created a suicide prevention task force that seeks to intervene as quickly possible when soldiers shows signs of risk. It has held a “stand-down” event in which units walked throughout the base to become familiar with Lewis-McChord’s behavioral health resources.
It has assigned psychologists and social workers to different combat units so behavioral health experts can break down barriers with soldiers they want to help.
And, Lewis-McChord is the home of a Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program that provides life skills guidance to troops and their dependents.
The base in 2011 had its worst year for suicides with 13 reported self-inflicted deaths. It has not released a total for 2012. In September, nine deaths at the base were under investigation as possible suicides.