A bipartisan group of lawmakers is asking the US Army to take "immediate action" to address a suicide crisis in Alaska that they say claimed the lives of 17 soldiers last year. There were seven soldier suicides in Alaska in 2020 and eight in 2019, per the Anchorage Daily News, meaning the 2021 total is more than the previous two years combined. A USA Today investigation found soldiers stationed in Alaska, particularly those at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, experienced delays in receiving mental health counseling. One soldier who reported having suicidal thoughts said he was told he would need to wait a month to see a counselor. Others spoke of difficulties in living in isolation in extreme cold with a lack of daylight.
The suicide rate for the active duty military was 28.7 per 100,000 troops in 2020, about the same as in the rest of society, but the Pentagon expects a lower rate as "troops are subject to far greater oversight than civilians," per USA Today. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, joined Alaska's Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan in writing to Army Sec. Christine Wormuth to demand change. "Service members stationed in Alaska are under an outsized level of stress from several angles, including behavioral health specialist shortages, financial challenges, infrastructure and transportation limitations, and the adjustment to living in a remote location with extreme cold weather," reads the letter, dated Friday.
It notes there are "11 unfilled civilian mental health provider positions at Fort Wainwright," which has put "unbearable pressure" on existing providers, "increasing the likelihood that they quit and further exacerbate the problem." The lawmakers want to see plans to improve living conditions and timely access to mental health treatment, including through the use of video. "We need to do everything in our power to turn this tide," said Murkowski in a statement, per USA Today. A spokesperson for Wormuth said she met with behavioral health specialists, soldiers, and their families in Alaska on Wednesday. "She is very concerned about deaths by suicide and is working with the [Pentagon] to prioritize the support needed to respond to the issue," the rep said. (Read more suicide stories.)