Joint Session of State Senate-Assembly Briefed on Military Suicides

Joe Tyrrell | October 23, 2012 | More Issues
On somber subject a brief gleam of hope, NJ is one of the best at identifying at-risk soldiers

On Monday morning, a soldier apparently committed suicide in King of Prussia, PA; on Sunday, it was one in Illinois; on Saturday, one at Fort Knox, KY.

That stark information came from Brig. Gen Michael Cunniff, adjutant general of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

In July, there were 26 suspected suicides reported among active-duty Army personnel, and another dozen among reservists. He was speaking yesterday at a joint session of the state Senate and Assembly military and veteran affairs committees in Lawrenceville.

“That’s more than one a day,” Cunniff said. “If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will.”

Already in the first half of the year, the American military was on a pace of almost one suicide a day, usually a low-ranking, male soldier, according to the Associated Press. That rate jumped in July, prompting a series of “stand downs,” set aside throughout the services to address the issue.

At the joint session, held in the office of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Cunniff and other in-state brass assured legislators that they are responding well to such underlying problems as post-traumatic stress disorders, traumatic brain injuries, and depression among soldiers, reservists and veterans.

With training that now includes “resiliency,” stress management and recovery, New Jersey’s Army and Air National Guards does its best to prepare servicemen and women in advance, the officers said.

Through screening, counseling, and follow-up calls, and other resources, the services try to ensure that soldiers and their families readjust after tours of duty. Similar programs are offered for troops being funneled through Fort Dix, commanders from the base told the legislators.

But New Jersey has not been immune from the turmoil. A member of the Air Guard committed suicide around Christmas, Cunniff said. The dead soldier at Fort Knox was married to a New Jersey reservist, “so we had to get in contact with her,” he said.

Identifying At-Risk Personnel

Still, the various officers could not keep a hint of pride from their voices as they related numbers suggesting the New Jersey commands are among the best in the nation at identifying at-risk soldiers and providing treatment.

Depending on the criteria, New Jersey ranks second behind only the District of Columbia, or third, also trailing New York, in assuring the mental health of its men and women in uniform.

“The Northeast attitude goes a long way in preparing a soldier,” Cunniff said.

So do services. The state has $1.3 million in contracts with 11 providers of post-traumatic stress disorder treatment and counseling for National Guard members and veterans, according to Ray Zawacki, the department’s assistant commissioner.

“We have 2,810 veterans right now in counseling,” he said.

Although the program is structured to provide services for seven years, it aims to plug into federal funding for those in need of further assistance, according to Zawacki. More than half of current clients served during the Vietnam War era, he said.

Military suicides are not confined to the Army, although it is the largest branch of the service and the only one to issue monthly press releases on the situation.

The Associated Press reported that eight Marines apparently killed themselves in July, bringing the total to date for 2012 to 32, matching all of 2011. The count was six in the Air Force, up from just two in June. The Navy reported four, but its previous figures were not available, according to the AP.

No Easy Answers

Looking more closely at the confirmed suicides does not provide many easy answers, according to Cunniff. While 95 percent were men, 80 percent were white and most were concentrated in lower ranks, other indicators are harder to find, he said.

The vast majority of cases occur in the United States, 53 percent among people who have not been deployed overseas, according to Cunniff. Only 11 percent were ever involved in combat, he said.

“People kill themselves in the military for the same reasons they do in civilian life — relationships, financial problems,” Cunniff said. “I don’t know why a 25-year-old would decide that the best alternative is to kill yourself.”

A changing military culture can contribute to problems among veterans being de-mobilized, according to retired Major Gen. Maria Falca-Dodson. During World War 2, 15 percent of the population was in uniform and “every family was affected,” she said.

Today’s military relies on a far smaller percentage of the population, Falca-Dodson noted. Not only may discharged soldiers have trouble keeping in touch with service buddies from other parts of the country, “they may have to go a long way to find anyone to talk to who has shared their experience,” she said.

Falca-Dodson touted the national vet-to-vet peer counseling program, and a round-the-clock hotline operated in conjunction with the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Piscataway [1-855-838-8255 (1-855-VET-TALK)], under the state Vets4Warriors program.

“What a vet needs is to talk with another vet,” Falca-Dodson said.

The hotline also accepts calls from family members, and three-fifths of its contacts are routine requests for information or help with benefits and forms, she said. But just over 40 percent involve more serious issues, and “1 percent are emergent,” she said.

In those case, the veterans staffing the line are trained to stay on with the caller until the proper medical or mental-health provider has been identified, contacted and actually come on line to take the call, according to Falca-Dodson.

Such programs are “more than almost any other state is doing,” she said.

“If you can get someone past a crisis moment … then usually you can get them to the point where they are recovering,” said Maj. Douglas Hughes, a Fort Dix chaplain who oversees re-entry programs for returning soldiers.

Little Time to Decompress

Unlike earlier eras when it may have taken a month or more for soldiers to get home from the front, Americans troops leaving Afghanistan generally “fly to an another ‘–istan,’ and there’s three or four of them, for a few days, then spend a few days in Germany,” and then are back in the United States, Hughes said.

They undergo a whole battery of screenings, and get “a card for 180 days of medical services on the Army’s dime,” he said. But only those identified in the first six days or so with medical or other problems are kept on active duty. That makes continued contacts important, especially “peer-on-peer” with fellow vets, Hughes said.

Changes in the military cut several ways, the officers said. Focusing on transitions for soldiers from warzone misses some situations, according to Cunniff.

“Most people don’t know that the pilots who fly Predator drones are based here in the United States,” he said. “They are launched in combat zones, but the people who fly them and fire the missiles are mostly here.”

“So someone in California may launch missiles and then a half-hour later, be on their way to pick up their kids from school,” Cunniff said. “Where’s the cooling off in that?”

In response to constituent requests, “we’ve tried very hard to build up our veterans services in Camden County,” said state Sen. Jim Beach (D-Camden), chairman of the state committee. The purpose of yesterday’s hearing was simply to get information and ask “if there’s more we should be doing,” he said.