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Fort Drum Highlights Suicide Prevention
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Fort Drum Highlights Suicide Prevention

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Fort Drum Highlights Suicide Prevention

Fort Drum Highlights Suicide Prevention
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Staff Sgt. Chad Wood at an event in Fort Drum to raise suicide prevention awareness. i

Staff Sgt. Chad Wood writes a note on a memorial banner to a comrade who committed suicide after returning from Iraq in 2003. Wood and other soldiers took part in a walk at Fort Drum designed to raise awareness about suicide in the military. David Sommerstein for NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Sommerstein for NPR
Staff Sgt. Chad Wood at an event in Fort Drum to raise suicide prevention awareness.

Staff Sgt. Chad Wood writes a note on a memorial banner to a comrade who committed suicide after returning from Iraq in 2003. Wood and other soldiers took part in a walk at Fort Drum designed to raise awareness about suicide in the military.

David Sommerstein for NPR

More On Army's Suicide Rate

Battling Suicides

 

The Army's newest suicide prevention effort is a campaign called "Shoulder to Shoulder." It teaches soldiers to take on a "battle buddy."

 

That means "if you have a fellow soldier, friend, fellow employee who seems to be in trouble, ask them, talk to them about it, encourage them to get help," according to Ralph Marcellus, coordinator of suicide prevention programs at Fort Drum.

 

The Army has:

  • hired hundreds of new mental health providers in an effort to combat suicides;
  • produced a video on suicide prevention that all troops have to watch; and
  • required that all soldiers carry a card that says how to identify danger signs and what to do about them.

The U.S. Army is nearing a grim statistic: The number of soldiers who committed suicide this year is on pace to be an all-time high. The record was set in 2007 when there were 115 suicides.

The Army says there have been 62 confirmed suicides by active duty members in 2008, with 31 unconfirmed cases that appear to be suicides.

The Army has responded with suicide prevention programs, but the trend has yet to be reversed.

To draw attention to the issue, Fort Drum, an Army base in upstate New York, hosted a march on Sept. 12 to remember victims of suicide.

Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Marshall, one of 40 soldiers and civilians who joined the walk, remembers when one of his soldiers returned from a tour in Afghanistan. Marshall says the gunfire, violence and stress took the soldier, a private, by surprise.

"He didn't want to be here no more. He didn't want to be in the Army. He didn't want to live. He just wanted to end it all," Marshall says.

The soldier is still alive; Marshall identified the signs in time and his platoon rallied around the private.

Getting Help

Army officials acknowledge repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are taking their toll. They hope events like this memorial march will help reverse the trend.

Penny Pierce, who works at Fort Drum, helped organize the march. She says the taboo surrounding suicide makes soldiers particularly vulnerable.

"They feel like they're supposed to be tough and strong all the time and that asking for help is something that they don't want to do," she says.

Despite the Army's recent attention to mental health issues, Staff Sgt. Chad Wood, whose colleague committed suicide when they returned from Iraq in 2003, says seeking help is too often still seen as a sign of weakness. Wood tries to teach his unit otherwise.

"I try to enlighten a lot of the new soldiers that have not deployed to make sure that they understand that my door is open to come and talk to seek the right help if they are encountering any sort of issues," he says.

A few dozen walkers along a soggy road seem almost invisible on this sprawling base of more than 17,000 soldiers. Fort Drum officials say any light shed on the dark, painful reality of suicide is a step in the right direction.

David Sommerstein reports for member station NCPR.

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