Fort Campbell training soldiers to prevent suicide

By KRISTIN M. HALL, Associated Press –  May 28, 2009 

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) — Commanders at Fort Campbell who have dealt with at least 11 suicides this year – the most at any Army base – have set aside routine duties for three days to find and help soldiers at risk of killing themselves as they struggle with the stress of war.

From January to March, the installation on the Kentucky-Tennessee line averaged one suicide per week, Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend said Wednesday, the first day of regular duties being suspended. After an Army-wide prevention campaign that began in March, no soldier committed suicide for six weeks, he said.
“But last week we had two. Two in a week,” Townsend said. “This is not a place where Fort Campbell and the 101st Airborne Division want to be. “We don’t want to lead the Army in this statistic.”

In a series of addresses this week, Townsend will speak to of the 25,000 soldiers assigned to the division. He told more than 4,000 soldiers that the suicides must stop.

“Someone here has had thoughts or is having thoughts about hurting themselves,” Townsend said. “Or you know someone who is.”

Army leaders are developing new guidance for commanders to help installations like Fort Campbell deal with rising suicide rates. Across the Army, suicides from January through March rose to a reported 56 – 22 confirmed and 34 still being investigated and pending confirmation.

Frequent deployments by the division since 2001 have contributed to the stress soldiers feel at Fort Campbell, said Col. Ken Brown, the head of chaplains for the base.

The three 101st Airborne combat brigades have gone through at least three tours in Iraq. The 3rd Brigade also served seven months in Afghanistan, early in the war, and the 4th Brigade has just returned from a 15-month tour in Afghanistan.

“We’ve been at war at this installation for seven years,” Brown said. “I think that has a cumulative effect across the force.”

The Army has said that soldier suicides reached the highest rate on record in 2008. Officials said the deaths would amount to a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, which is higher than the civilian rate, when adjusted to reflect the Army’s younger and male-heavy demographics.

Fort Campbell leaders have asked soldiers on the post to look out for each other and paired them up through a “battle buddy” system. Unit leaders are also reviewing and updating lists of soldiers who may be a risk for suicide and are reminding them they can seek help from resources such as a chaplain or a hospital.

But Army officials say many soldiers are afraid that seeking help for mental health issues will hurt their careers or make them appear weak to their fellow soldiers. Townsend urged soldiers to speak up.
“You wouldn’t hesitate to seek medical attention for a physical wound or injury,” Townsend said. “Don’t hesitate to seek medical attention for a psychological injury.”

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