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Army suicide numbers for 2022 ‘significantly lower,’ Army Secretary says

Christine Wormuth at the Center for New American Studies 2018 Annual Strategic Competition Conference in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2018. (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)
May 13, 2022

While it’s still early in the year, the Army’s suicide numbers for 2022 are “significantly lower” than they were last year, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told Congress on Tuesday. However, key resources for some of the Army’s installations hardest hit by suicides are on the Army’s unfunded priorities list.

In 2021, 176 soldiers are known to have died by suicide, the highest number since 9/11 and the highest rate per 100,000 service members since 1938.

On Tuesday, Wormuth attributed that increase, at least in part, to the pandemic.

“We’re still looking at this data, but in my mind it’s very clear that the pandemic has deepened this problem or contributed to this problem,” she said at the Senate Appropriations Committee Army budget hearing.

Currently, the Army’s suicide numbers are down 28 percent this year from last, 19 percent below the five-year average and 17 percent below the 10-year average for the total force, Army public affairs provided via email.

Like most Americans, soldiers were more isolated during the pandemic, she said.

And even before the pandemic, isolation was a problem in one of the Army’s hardest-hit areas: Alaska.

Military installations in Alaska are in the spotlight of the Defense Department’s fight against suicide.

In 2021, official statistics indicate that 11 soldiers died by suicide in Alaska, but another six deaths are still under investigation. Seven, eight, and three died by suicide in 2020, 2019, and 2018, respectively. A recently announced Pentagon committee has been assigned to investigate the high number of suicides at nine installations and units—three of which are in Alaska.

So Congress was concerned to see a key mental health resource for Fort Wainwright, Alaska, at the top of the Army Chief’s unfunded priorities list.

The proposed $99 million physical-fitness center annex includes a suspended, four-lane, 200-meter indoor running track with a synthetic turf multi-purpose field, cardio and weight-training facilities, locker rooms, control desk, administrative area, lobby, laundry, an elevator, and storage.

“We’ve talked to the commanders up there and said, ‘What can we do to help you?’ And this is what their priority was, and that’s why it sits as my No. 1 priority,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told lawmakers on Tuesday. “We have to do something. We have a challenge on behavioral health out there and when we talked to commanders, they said that’s what’s needed.”

The lack of such a facility “adversely impacts the quality of life and morale of the entire Fort Wainwright community by limiting opportunities for recreational pursuits and community bonding,” the unfunded priorities list reads.

The high cost of the facility, McConville and Wormuth said, reflects its size and the outsized expense of construction in remote Alaska.

Nonetheless, it’s at the top of McConville’s wish list for Congress, which starts off with 18 items in the “People” category.

“It is a problem,” Wormuth said of 2021’s high suicide levels. “It’s a problem that Gen. McConville and I are very concerned about, as are the other leaders in the department.”

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