To Combat Suicides, Army Focuses On The Homefront Military suicides hit a record high in 2012, and the Army has been the hardest-hit branch. Its prevention efforts have included everything from a buddy system to 24-hour hotlines. Now, the Army is deploying psychiatrists and counselors to the places where soldiers live and work.
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To Combat Suicides, Army Focuses On The Homefront

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To Combat Suicides, Army Focuses On The Homefront

To Combat Suicides, Army Focuses On The Homefront

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour with a number - 349. That's how many service members, both active duty and reservists, took their own lives last year. The Army has been the branch hardest hit by suicide, and soldiers seem to be most hazardous to themselves not when they're deployed, but when they're home. So that's where additional psychiatrists are now being deployed. Blake Farmer, of member station WPLN, has the story from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: When Sgt. Brandon McCoy returned from Iraq, he showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, on edge in public.

ALICIA MCCOY: I'm watching him, and his trigger finger never stopped moving - constantly.

FARMER: McCoy's wife, Alicia, says after returning from a tour in Afghanistan, she'd wake up with his hands wrapped around her throat. She told him: Get help, or get a divorce. So he scheduled an appointment and along with Alicia, trekked to the Fort Campbell hospital located on the Tennessee-Kentucky border.

MCCOY: I sat there and watched this person ask my husband: Do you feel like hurting yourself today? No, sir. Do you feel like hurting anybody else today? No, sir. And I went, are you kidding me?

FARMER: Brandon McCoy was given sleeping pills and antidepressants. But more than a year later, he was found dead in a west Tennessee motel room, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

MCCOY: I wear his dog tags every day.


MCCOY: They were hanging on the rearview mirror in his car. It is what it is. I can't change what happened.

FARMER: But Alicia McCoy says more could have been done. The Army has admitted to being overwhelmed by this multiyear mental health crisis, and concedes a shortage of counselors and psychiatrists. But a recent hiring spree has helped with that, and psychiatrists are now being deployed to the front lines of the suicide fight - Army posts. And instead of locating in the post hospital, they're setting up shop where soldiers live and work.

ARMY MAJ. ASHLEY CHATIGNY: The DFAC, that's where all the soldiers go and eat; kind of dorm-looking things are barracks.

FARMER: Major Ashley Chatigny heads a counseling team situated in a place that soldiers with the 101st Airborne's 4th Brigade walk by every day. As a Blackhawk helicopter flies overhead, Chatigny says soldiers can drop in for a chat any morning, without an appointment. Maybe they'll see someone they know, and that's OK. After a decade of war, everyone's got cumulative stress.

CHATIGNY: It's almost like a street credibility. You know, you bring your buddy in, and you kind of see that there's really nothing to be afraid of.

FARMER: While having what are known as embedded counselors isn't new when soldiers are deployed, it is when they return from war. And since the homefront is where so many suicides occur, the Army is trying these embedded teams stateside, too. Fort Carson, Colo., was the first and now, more than half a dozen posts are following suit. Chatigny calls it primary care for the brain.

CHATIGNY: I mean, we say the heart attack of psychiatry is a suicide, and that if we can prevent - right, just like with hypertension or high cholesterol - prevent them from actually having this disorder for a long time, we can prevent a heart attack. possibly.

FARMER: There's a term used when counselors or chaplains have to swoop in to rescue a suicidal soldier. It's called a diving catch. Fort Campbell's head psychiatrist, Joe Wise, says there have been fewer since mental health teams began rubbing elbows with this brigade.

ARMY MAJ. JOE WISE: That's what we're seeing, as we stand up the embedded teams - is, we're able to prevent more of these diving catches.

FARMER: Wise concedes it's too early to give all the credit to this effort at making psychiatrists more familiar faces around Fort Campbell. But the post has tried it all - hotlines, buddy systems, and training for spouses. In 2009, all combat preparation stopped for days, just to focus on suicide prevention. Alicia McCoy's husband sat through those special briefings, and knew the warning signs. Military suicide numbers will determine whether the latest prevention efforts are effective.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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