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At Army base, an aggressive campaign against suicide

More service members killed themselves last year than were killed in Afghanistan. At Ft. Bliss in Texas, commanders have built a system of early intervention.

April 14, 2013|By David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times
  • Army Spc. Kyle Boswell, 19, in his room at Ft. Bliss. Boswell was praised by commanders for intervening in a fellow soldier's suicide attempt.
Army Spc. Kyle Boswell, 19, in his room at Ft. Bliss. Boswell was praised… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

FT. BLISS, Texas — Army Pvt. John Jeffery stumbled into Kyle Boswell's barracks room at Ft. Bliss before dawn one day in February, his eyes glassy.

"I've done something," Jeffery mumbled to his buddy. "I can't tell anyone. It's going to happen."

He had just learned his girlfriend was cheating on him. The Army had decided to kick him out for using heroin. Now the 21-year-old veteran of Afghanistan had downed more than two bottles of Vicodin and Oxycodone, powerful prescription painkillers. Boswell rushed him to the emergency room, and he remains in the hospital psychiatric ward.

The case is a success of sorts — a soldier treated, a suicide prevented — and it reflects an encouraging shift at Ft. Bliss, one of the Army's largest bases, a vast Texas sprawl of 30,000 soldiers and row upon row of armored vehicles brought back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

With a suicide epidemic sweeping the military, commanders at Ft. Bliss have aggressively approached mental health problems, building an early warning system to identify and monitor distressed soldiers, and intervene at the first sign someone is considering suicide.

The goal is to change how the Army handles a mental breakdown, turning it from a silent ordeal borne alone by a soldier, maybe with help from a chaplain or psychiatrist, to a collective mission, in which the base community has responsibility for stopping a potential suicide.

Overall, at least 349 U.S. service members committed suicide last year, the most since the Pentagon began releasing statistics about a decade ago. In comparison, 295 Americans were killed in combat last year in Afghanistan. So far this year, 99 more suicides have been confirmed.

Even for the Army, where soldiers have little privacy, the Ft. Bliss program is intrusive.

Each company-sized unit and above must submit a monthly list of soldiers with known emotional, financial or drug problems. Other soldiers may be assigned to watch those considered high-risk. Ranking officers follow up.

Soldiers are trained to recognize warning signs in themselves and others, and told to inform superiors if they suspect a potential suicide. Mental health counselors have set up offices near brigade headquarters. Troops are tested for drugs up to eight times a year; the Army normally does only one. The hospital doubled the beds in its psychiatric ward to 28 after complaints about long waits for treatment.

The system seems to help. Ft. Bliss saw only five suicides last year, down from seven in 2011. The number of suicides rose sharply at nearly every other major Army base, including Ft. Bragg, Ft. Hood and Ft. Campbell.

"If you get a soldier to treatment, the chances are he'll live," said Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, a West Point graduate who commands Ft. Bliss and once served as President Clinton's military aide. "We're really emphasizing getting help."

Pittard is an unlikely spokesman for aggressive intervention. In January 2012, writing in his official blog, he called suicide "an absolutely selfish act" and urged troubled soldiers to "deal with your real life problems like the rest of us."

He later retracted the comments. Aides said he was venting after attending a memorial for a soldier who killed himself near his two young daughters on Christmas Day.

The Army, which carried the brunt of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, also has borne the most suicides.

For decades, the suicide rate in the Army was less than half the male civilian rate. It began rising as the Army expanded to meet manpower needs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2009, more than 22 soldiers per 100,000 have taken their lives, just less than the civilian rate for men. No one is sure whether the increase is due to the mental and physical toll of war, eased recruiting standards or other factors.

Military suicides fit no clear pattern. Most are young males who endured combat, but one-third never did. Some saw comrades mangled or killed, or struggled as marriages or relationships shattered. Some grappled with brain injuries, post-traumatic stress or drug abuse.

Jeffery's case defies the assumption that combat stress is driving the suicide wave.

His life came apart after he returned to Ft. Bliss in July from a year in Afghanistan. In an interview, he said he started shooting up heroin that he bought in nearby El Paso, resuming a habit he had picked up in Baltimore where, he said, his father died from an overdose and his mother was an addict.

He joined the Army hoping to leave heroin behind. He was deployed to Afghanistan's Wardak province, where fighting was fierce. Most days he went on long patrols in armored vehicles, getting into battles and clearing roads of buried bombs. Although some exploded, he was not wounded.

"I didn't feel the need" for drugs, Jeffery said. "Just the adrenaline from taking incoming and going out on convoys was enough for me."

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