Fort Drum Highlights Suicide Prevention 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. To draw attention to suicide prevention, Fort Drum Army base in upstate New York recently hosted a memorial march.
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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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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There's some grim news from the U.S. Army. The number of soldiers who committed suicide this year is on track to hit an all-time high. The Army has responded by designing new suicide prevention programs. Last week, a memorial march for suicide victims was held at Fort Drum in upstate New York. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein was there.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: A steady rain falls on a small tent at Fort Drum's Memorial Park. About 40 soldiers and civilians huddle underneath. They pin purple ribbons on their clothes. Some sign a banner to remember family or friends who committed suicide. Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Marshall remembers one of his privates after a tour in Afghanistan.

Sgt. 1st Class JOSEPH MARSHALL (U.S. Army): 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.

SOMMERSTEIN: Marshall says the gunfire, the violence, the stress, took the soldier by surprise. He's still alive. Marshall identified the signs in time, and his platoon rallied around the soldier.

Sgt. 1st Class MARSHALL: I let him know that besides himself there's someone else that still cares about him, and stuff.

SOMMERSTEIN: According to the Army, 115 soldiers, reserves and National Guardsmen weren't so lucky last year. More than 2,000 soldiers attempted suicide. Ninety-three more had killed themselves as of August of this year. A third of those remain under investigation. 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. Chaplain James White begins with a prayer as the rain intensifies.

Reverend JAMES WHITE (Chaplain, U.S. Army): May our walk today in the midst of this rain serve as an example and how sincere we are about caring and reaching out for those who are in need.

SOMMERSTEIN: Ralph Marcellus sends the marchers out.

Mr. RALPH MARCELLUS (Coordinator, Suicide Awareness Campaign, Fort Drum): Thank you very much for being here and being part of this today. Let's get walking.

SOMMERSTEIN: Marcellus coordinates Fort Drum's suicide prevention programs. He says all soldiers now carry a card in their uniform that says how to identify danger signs and what to do about them. The Army's hired hundreds of new mental health providers. It's produced a video that all troops have to watch. Marcellus says the latest effort is a new campaign called "Shoulder to Shoulder."

Mr. MARCELLUS: The battle buddy mindset of if you have a fellow soldier friend, fellow employee, who seems to be in trouble, to ask them, talk to them about it, encourage them to get help, even get them there.

SOMMERSTEIN: Penny Pierce, who works at Fort Drum, helped organized the march. She says the taboos surrounding suicide make soldiers particularly vulnerable.

Ms. PENNY PIERCE (RCI Program Support Specialist, Fort Drum): 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.

SOMMERSTEIN: Staff Sergeant Chad Wood had a fellow soldier commit suicide when they returned from Iraq in 2003.

Staff Sgt. CHAD WOOD (U.S. Army): He had seemed to kind of fall off the deep end as far as emotions. And right before Christmas time, he decided to, you know, to take his own life.

SOMMERSTEIN: Despite the Army's recent attention to mental health issues, Wood says seeking help is too often still seen as a sign of weakness. He tries to teach his unit otherwise.

Staff Sgt. WOOD: 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, you know, to seek the right help.

SOMMERSTEIN: 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. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.

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