Army combats suicide surge in its ranks

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2014 - 12:33 PM

More service members now are taking their own lives than are dying in combat. As the toll mounts, family members are asking whether military leaders are responding properly to soldiers in crisis.

The text message from the young soldier to his mom ended with a short, shocking vow.

"I'm going to take my life. Sorry.''

Jeremy Campbell wrote it sitting alone inside a roadside room at the Comfort Suites hotel in Urbana, Ill., the day last September that he fled his Army base 300 miles away in Kentucky, despondent and ashamed.

Then he drank two bottles of cough syrup, put on his headphones, and lay down.

From her home in Cloquet, Minn., a frightened Corinne Campbell alerted military officials. With the help of cellphone tracking, they closed in on her son's location. A few hours later, police and medics burst into his hotel room and rushed him to a hospital.

Jeremy's life had been saved.

Or so it seemed.

• • •

After 10 years of continuous warfare, the U.S. military is taking mounting losses. But most of its troops are now dying by their own hands -- not in battle with Al-Qaida or the Taliban.

Including members of the Reserve and National Guard, more service members killed themselves last year than died in combat. The suicide rate of National Guard soldiers and Reservists nearly doubled in the last year alone -- and statistics suggest that Minnesota has one of the higher rates in the nation. Overall, military suicides have hit record levels.

"Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy," a 2010 Army report concluded.

As the toll increases, so do questions about how military leaders are responding.

Interviews with family members of Minnesota soldiers who have ended their own lives during the past few years and a review of hundreds of pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act suggest that the Army often misses red flags regarding the mental health of its soldiers or doesn't adequately address such cases after they come to light.

They are cases like Jacob Fairbanks, a St. Paul native who was sent to continue a second tour in Iraq after telling a doctor and social worker at Fort Campbell that he had suicidal thoughts. Fairbanks also had sought counseling for marital problems and depression, but his commanders in Iraq were not alerted or told that he had been given a prescription for an antidepressant. Fairbanks killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

An Army report on his suicide concluded that the lack of communication between Fort Campbell officials and Fairbanks' commanders in Iraq was "cause for considerable reflection and concern.''

Military commanders routinely face discipline for other failures, but there is no evidence that any officer has ever been held accountable for a military suicide, even when warning signs were apparent. Instead, internal investigations commonly conclude that while the Army as a whole needs to do better, no individual bears blame.

Meanwhile, grieving families seeking more information about a soldier's suicide are routinely given military incident reports pockmarked by blacked-out names and details. Left to play amateur detective, they sometimes arrive at their own, more hopeful conclusions -- it must have been an accident, a stray bullet, something other than suicide.

"I feel like nobody cared enough to find out what happened to him," said Jacob Fairbanks' mother, Jan, who has pored over three volumes of reports provided to her. "I've been asking questions and doing my own investigating. Why can't I see what the military sees? I want to believe that they know best, they did a good job of investigating. I want to know that I put them in charge of my son and they took care of him. And I don't see that."

Military records also show that the suicides in its ranks often defy the stereotype of battle-haunted soldiers unable to shake images of bloodshed from their minds.

One-third of the suicides at Fort Campbell involved soldiers who, like Jeremy Campbell, had never served overseas, much less in a war zone. Soldiers with one or no deployments represent 70 percent of all military suicides, with 60 percent occurring during a soldier's first enlistment.

In testimony to Congress last year, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff who has been in the service for nearly four decades, framed the challenge the military has to reduce soldier suicides and better diagnose and treat those who need help in stark, urgent terms.

"I have never dealt with a more difficult or critical mission,'' Chiarelli said.

• • •

False rescue

In the days after Jeremy Campbell nearly ended his life inside an Illinois hotel room, military officials sent him to a counseling program for soldiers.

Warrior Wellness, they call it.

The 19-year-old recruit, a cherub-faced former Eagle Scout and high school wrestler, once told his mother that he dreamed of becoming a brigadier general. He had been a leader of his recruit class through months of basic training and had a graduation medal to show for it.

Now he was unraveling.

He had fled Fort Campbell days earlier, after failing to complete a 12-mile, full-pack march in under three hours -- a requirement for entrance into the Army's rigorous air assault school, an opportunity he coveted. It was the second time he had failed.

As his outlook soured, Campbell began saying he hated the Army, hated his unit, that he planned to buy a gun and "blow my head off."

He spent a week at the Skyline Medical Center's Warrior Wellness program, a new facility in Nashville that's about a 45-minute drive from Fort Campbell. Designed to address the special stresses of being a soldier, the program emphasizes group counseling amid the discipline of a military setting.

Soldiers stay for seven to 10 days, then return to their base for monitoring. In the year since the program began, some soldiers have returned for help six or seven times -- creating suspicion among some staff members that some soldiers are using the pretext of suicidal thoughts to avoid another deployment.

Officials who run the program have been told to expect an overflow of patients exceeding the unit's 14 beds.

Jeremy Campbell was released from Skyline back to Fort Campbell with prescriptions for two antidepressants. He was kept on a 24-hour watch for four days. Then he had a follow-up visit at the base's mental health unit. Leaders of the military police company to which he was assigned were told that he was no longer a risk to himself or others.

Still, Campbell was required to check in every couple hours, a routine that chafed at his pride.

One Sunday night last September, Christopher Campbell spoke with his son by phone. Nearly three weeks had passed since Jeremy sent the suicidal text message to his mother.

His father recalls Jeremy describing long days training for deployment to Afghanistan.

What Jeremy didn't tell his dad was that another 12-mile march loomed, at 3:45 the next morning.

• • •

Counteroffensive

In 2004, 67 soldiers on active duty committed suicide. By 2009, the number had jumped to 162. Last year, 32 soldiers took their own lives in the month of June, more than one a day.

The Army reported a slight reduction last year in the number of soldiers on active duty who killed themselves -- from 162 to 156. But the number of suicides among Guard and Reserve soldiers not on active duty nearly doubled, from 80 to 145.

Two years ago, leaders at Fort Campbell, which is home to the famed 101st Airborne Division, felt compelled to shut the base for a three-day "suicide stand down" after 11 soldiers killed themselves over a span of five months.

The situation didn't improve. By the end of the year, Fort Campbell led the Army in suicides with 21. Since then, the Army has launched a broader counteroffensive to prevent and treat suicidal tendencies in its ranks.

It has hired hundreds of mental health and substance abuse counselors. It is working on a five-year, $50 million study with the National Institute of Mental Health to identify best practices for intervention in the lives of troubled soldiers. It is beefing up 24/7 teleconferencing and online programs for soldiers in isolated areas. It also has unveiled a suicide-prevention program known as ACE -- ask, care and escort -- that uses DVDs, handouts and tip cards to teach soldiers and their families and friends how to recognize and respond to suicidal impulses.

"Suicide is one of those things that leaves the survivors in the unit hanging. Sometimes you don't know what causes it, what sets them off,'' said Col. Roger Heath, the chief chaplain at Fort Campbell.

Military units and family members, he said, invoking an Army term, have to "police up the battlefield."

But prevention plans and day-to-day interactions among troubled soldiers and their comrades and commanders can be as dissimilar as battle plans and battlefield conditions.

An Army report last year found that many attempted suicides are not even reported because they don't meet the criteria for being included in the Defense Department's database. That disclosure suggests that, even as the military improves its suicide-prevention program, the number of attempted and completed suicides may be under-reported.

A Defense Department report last year also suggested that the newfound zeal for attacking the military's suicide problem has resulted in a mishmash of overlapping and inefficient efforts.

"The urgency to respond to the challenges of suicide may have driven the services to deploy many of these initiatives without the benefit of strategic planning, evaluation, standardization, or plans for sustainment," it concluded.

• • •

Gunshot at dawn

Jeremy Campbell's cellphone rang at 4:15 the morning of the long march he had twice failed.

The caller was his platoon sergeant, wondering where he was.

Campbell told him that he was in his barracks. The sergeant told Campbell he knew that wasn't true. Then Campbell said he didn't know where he was. He hung up.

A couple of hours later, he texted his father: "To you I am sorry that I was not strong enough to carry on the family name this is my biggest regret. I love you very much.''

Back in Cloquet, the Campbells saw the text and quickly responded:

"Please don't do this, honey, we love you."

Corinne Campbell sent six messages in all. She heard nothing more.

Jeremy Campbell was sitting behind the wheel of a car parked near a base gate when police pulled up later that morning.

He had killed himself with a rifle he'd bought two days earlier at Wal-Mart.

• • •

Star burst effect

Experience is teaching Army counselors new lessons as they intensify their work to prevent soldier suicides.

The fact that only about a third of the suicides are among soldiers who have served overseas, officials say, is a clear sign of how many are unable to shed their civilian troubles just by putting on a uniform.

Amid several years of sustained economic difficulty around the country, the military at all levels -- active duty, Guard and Reserve -- is getting a larger share of commitments from young people who are motivated as much by the lack of other alternatives to finding employment as by patriotism.

Some of them, in turning to the military as a refuge from joblessness or a sense of irrelevance, are finding that military service can bring its own despair -- such as long absences from loved ones and the financial pressures of trying to manage slender household budgets long-distance.

Army officials also say they have learned that the first three months after a soldier returns from a deployment can be especially fraught with hazard.

Problems with re-integration into old routines at home and their relationships have become so common that the ensuing mental and behavioral flameouts have acquired their own shorthand in the military -- what's being called a "star burst" effect.

Nationally, more than 50 percent of the National Guard soldiers who killed themselves in 2010 were struggling with a relationship problem at the time of their deaths, said Lt. Col. John Echert, senior chaplain at the Minnesota Air National Guard's Minneapolis-based 133rd Airlift Wing.

"It's not necessarily what the individual is facing on deployment, but facing back home,'' Echert said. More soldiers also seem to be entering the ranks with a propensity toward high-risk behaviors of all types.

The military is seeing an alarming increase in illicit drug use, disciplinary infractions, and felony and misdemeanor crimes. One in every three suicides takes place under the influence of drugs or alcohol, officials say, and 32 percent occur among soldiers with some form of closed or pending criminal investigation.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter, the acting director of the Army National Guard, said that the Army cannot help but reflect the problems that young men are having in many communities.

"We are really kind of ... the canary in the mine shaft,'' Carpenter said.

Even as the Army strives to provide more help to troubled soldiers, the answers remain elusive, the science of treatment inexact.

"One year is, unfortunately, not a wide enough snapshot'' to make predictions about the long-term effectiveness of prevention efforts, said Col. Chris Philbrick, director of the Army's suicide prevention task force.

Meanwhile, families who have lost loved ones to suicide are asking tougher questions about what went wrong -- or whether the military response so far has been too little, too late.

• • •

No one to blame?

Chris Campbell blames the last 12-mile march at Fort Campbell for pushing his son over the edge.

"To me, they really failed Jeremy by throwing him back into that ruck march,'' Campbell said. "To him, he would have never wanted to fail that again.''

The Army reached the same conclusion, noting Jeremy Campbell's week at the Skyline mental health facility shortly before the march.

"It should have been highly discouraged to schedule PFC Campbell for another road march so soon, even if the unit believed that PFC Campbell was motivated to train," the report said.

The Army also concluded that no one in Campbell's chain of command was informed by counselors that he had talked of shooting himself.

Still, no blame was assigned for the death of a high-performing soldier who "allowed the stress of change and recent failures to cloud his judgment," the investigation concluded.

Corinne Campbell now wears her son's dog tags. They are engraved with what is known as the Warrior Ethos.

"I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade," the pledge reads.

She fingered the tags absently while talking about her late son.

"I will never be the same again,'' she said.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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